I Was an Illegal Immigrant (Part 1)

Edd:  Ready to tell readers your big secret?

Cynthia:  Not particularly. We just buried that beast and you want to exhume the body already? Is there a moral to the story or some lesson to share?

E:  I think so. You waged a winning battle with bureaucracy that lasted almost three years. So to me it’s both a cautionary tale about potential pitfalls living abroad and an important message about perseverance.

C:  Well, when you put it like that what can I say except, “Yes, Edd, I’d very much like to tell people my secret.” OK, in March three years ago we were touring Santiago before boarding a cruise ship for a journey around the tip of South America. While we were riding a very crowded subway there my wallet was stolen from my purse. And for reasons I’ll never know, my original cédula was among the items in that stolen wallet.

E:  For readers who don’t know, a cédula is your Ecuadorian national ID card.

C:  Right. So, of course, we quickly notified the bank about my credit and debit cards and continued with our trip. Fortunately, I never carry much cash. A few months after we returned to Cuenca I went to the Immigration office to request a new cédula. I brought along a document from a different government facility that provides a record of my travels in and out of the country since we first arrived.

E:  And that’s where this sordid tale begins.

C:  Yep. The employee there who looked barely old enough to shave proceeded to count every single day on that report and discovered that in 2012 I had been out of the country five extra days.

E:  This was during our first two years of residency. Back then one of the requirements for obtaining residency was restricting time out of Ecuador to no more than 90 days for each of those two years. You’d been gone 95.

C:  And the irony is those extra days were because we’d accepted a last minute request from International Living to attend their conference in Playa del Carmen as goodwill ambassadors for—Ecuador! Anyway, it was my fault for not keeping count and I take full responsibility for the mistake. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. He took my passport and stamped a big CANCELED on my visa! Here I was trying to do the right thing and suddenly after five years here I was an illegal immigrant in my country of residence.

E:  I was there and still remember the shocked look on your face. Oh, yeah, there was also the “minor” issue that we were leaving for a trip to the States soon and didn’t know if you could get back in the country.

C:  We contacted an attorney friend here for advice and were assured that I could enter with a new T-3, 90-day tourist visa. She also told us all the paperwork we needed to gather in the U.S. to apply for residency again.

E:  Thus began a 2 ½ year merry-go-round ride involving the Ecuadorian Embassy in Newark, NJ; the UPS store in Ridgewood, NJ; the Immigration office in Azogues–a town about 45 minutes from Cuenca; plus meetings with and a zillion emails back and forth to our attorney.

C:  Edd, all this was too complicated for me to remember and I know you don’t. I’ve gotta go pull the files to get this right.

E:  Oh my gosh, look at all that! Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all.

C:  No, you started it and I’ve got everything out now so we’re going to finish it. OK, let’s see. We left in September 2015, gathered all the documents in the States and I did get a T-3 visa when we returned in October. So I was here legally again for 90 days. We almost immediately rode the bus to Azogues to turn the paperwork in and begin the residency application process. The employee there looked over everything and told us she didn’t think I would be approved.

E:  Why? I don’t remember.

C:  Shocker. Because my Federal background check had been apostilled in New Jersey instead of Washington, DC. We had done everything exactly as instructed on the government’s website and there was absolutely no mention of this technicality. It was going to be difficult to get a corrected background check from Ecuador so I explained my situation and asked for the application to be submitted with a request for an exception.

E:  I’m sure most readers don’t have a clue what an apostille is. We’d sure never heard the word until we decided to move here. To get a document apostilled means to send it to the Secretary of State’s office in your state to have a fancy-looking certificate attached verifying that it’s legitimate and authentic. Something about the Hague Convention, whatever that is.

C:   Anyway, I wait and I wait and I wait–you do a lot of that in Ecuador–my application was submitted in October, now it’s February of 2016 and I finally hear back that I’ve been rejected. And we’ve already got another trip to the States booked. Now I’ve got to get a 12-IX visa that extends the T-3 for an additional 180 days. It costs over $400 but what else can I do? This is really getting frustrating.

E:  And expensive. You can get this visa here in Cuenca so we go to the office and the young woman there informs us of yet another complication. You can’t apply for two visas at once so even though the one in Azogues is rejected we have to go there and present yet another document to formally withdraw it from the system. I’m starting to feel my Hulk symptoms creeping in but I don’t want to start throwing cars around in the parking lot yet.

C:  So on the bus to Azogues we go again. When we get to the Immigration office everyone has gone to lunch–big surprise–so we eat too and wait. Fortunately, this step goes smoothly. The next day it’s back to the office in Cuenca. The same young woman looks me up in the computer and announces, “Oh, we’re not able to give you a 12-IX because your T-3 has expired.” I say, “But the reason it expired is because the office in Azogues took so long to process my application.”

E:  My eyes are turning a funny color. My skin is turning green. My shirt is starting to split—

C:  She says, “I understand but there is nothing we can do.” I ask, “So what am I supposed to do?? We’re leaving for the U.S. soon and I’ve got to be able to get back in the country. I live here!” She tells me it’s no problem. I can get a 12-IX at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Newark. Thank goodness! So I receive the visa there in April, we come back and go to Galapagos in May. Then in June our daughter calls with the devastating news that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer and chemotherapy is starting immediately. It’s upsetting for me to relive this nightmare. Can we take a break?

E:  Yes, please. We’re probably putting our readers to sleep with this convoluted tale. Let’s pick up the story next time.

C:  Great. Thanks.

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