In case you’re wondering, this isn’t something out of Star Wars. An “alien” is what you become when you go to the US of A (or, for that matter, any foreign country), and you don’t have a resident status. That’s what I became when I reached America, with the words “I’m in the land of opportunity” ringing in my head. But then, maybe that’s how it always is for the first time. I’d been wishin’, and hopin’, and prayin’ for this very day for the past 3 years, so you can imagine.
I remember the first few moments were blissful, to say the least. We missed our connecting flight at Chicago. For me, it was just more fun, more time to spend looking around the airport. After all, you don’t get to see such huge airports back in India. It took me more than half an hour to walk from end-to-end, what with all the moving walkways (or whatever they call them). Then, another short flight later, we reached the neat little town of Grand Rapids. I had finally made it. This was to be my home for the next several months, and I was feeling great.
And then it happened. A week later, I was at the Social Security office to apply for my SSN card. After carefully examining my documents for what seemed like ages, the lady at the counter finally declared that she can’t take my application. Excuse me? “Well, you see, the name on your I-94 doesn’t match with your passport and VISA”, she said casually. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Nothing to be worried about. I’ll give you a letter about your problem and a number that you need to call. All you have to do is call that number, spell your name correctly for them, and they’ll fix it. I’m so very sorry for the inconvenience.” She was indeed very sweet. That’s not much of a deal, just a phone call. Little did I know what was in store.
Next day, I promptly called up the number. The lady on the other side was very polite. When I told her my problem, however, her reply was something I wasn’t really prepared for. “We don’t do that over the phone, sir. You’ve got to go over to one of the USCIS field offices and get it corrected. We’re sorry.” OK, so where is this field office? “The closest one to where you are located, sir, is in Detroit. You need to take a prior appointment before you go there.” My heart was beating faster now. I had just landed just days ago, and now I have to go to Detroit? Damn! Frankly, I didn’t believe her. I called up a couple of hours later to confirm. Same response, but I was adamant. “How can you say that? The lady at the Social Security office said this could be done over the phone”, I argued. My call was transferred. The next voice I heard was firm. “Sir, I’m sorry, but we don’t have access to the system. The field office does, so you just have to go there to get it corrected.” End of story. OK, so my American adventure starts now. Fine.
I tried to look at the brighter side of things. One of my friends lived near Detroit, so this would be a good chance to meet up. I called him up and made the plan. I leave for Detroit on Sunday, spend my day at my friend’s, book my appointment on Monday morning and return the same afternoon. The office isn’t open on weekends, so there goes one of my paid leaves. Never mind, my trip was well-planned. And sure enough, everything went like clockwork. At least, until the moment my friend dropped me off at the Detroit field office on his way to work on Monday morning.
I was early. While waiting for my time, I was feeling somewhat good about the whole thing. I had my first Greyhound ride, got to meet up with my friend after a long time, and got a glimpse of Detroit city. In a few moments, things will be sorted out and I’ll be catching the next bus back home. Sweet.
The lady at the counter was as astonished as I was. “Why were you told to come here? We can’t do anything. We don’t even have access to the system. As far as my knowledge goes, the Social Security office has access to the system, and someone there could have helped you with this.” I was trying hard to control my frustration. “What should I do now, do you think?” I said, in the most polite voice I could muster. “I have an idea. Why don’t you try at the Tunnel to Canada? I’m sure the officers there would be able to help you. It isn’t very far from here, just a few blocks down East Jefferson. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be of any help.” So much for politeness. Thank you very much.
Still optimistic, I decided to walk. It’s nice walking down the streets of an American city. Very different from walking on the streets of an Indian city. But that’s very obvious. Very clean, and amazingly well-planned. Almost too well-planned, I must say. Even the smallest by-lanes had an electronic signal telling you when to walk. After half an hour of taking in the sights of the city, I was still walking. Finally, after an hour of walking, I finally reached the Port of Entry. All I was hoping was this would be my final destination.
I was wrong. After handing over my papers to the officer nearest to me, I saw him glance at his friend. It was a oh-he’s-one-of-those-cases look. “Please go to the Immigrations office at the Detroit airport. They’ll fix it.” That was it? Oh Gawd, was there no end to this? I couldn’t help but believe him. Now, I was ready for anything. I had decided I would get to the end of this, even if it took me all day.
Out on the street, I realized I didn’t know which way to go. Should’ve asked for directions from that officer. Didn’t feel like going back there. I asked the next guy on the street. “Excuse me, do you know which way the airport is?” Apparently, the look on his face told me it was a strange question. I had said it like it would just be another “few blocks away”. He said, “You have to take a cab. It’s pretty far from downtown.”
A $40 cab ride later, I was at the airport. The officer at immigrations told me to wait. Eventually, a lady officer turned up to take my documents. After a while, she was back with a smile. “We have fixed it, but it might take a couple of weeks to show up on the system. Please re-apply for your SSN card after a couple of weeks.” After all that I’d been through that day, it seemed too good to be true. “Are you sure this is fixed? I don’t want to come over to Detroit again for this.” “Sir, I’ve already told you we’ve done what was necessary. I can’t guarantee it, since we don’t update the system.” Huh? I felt like asking her if they didn’t have access to the “system”, who else did, but I let it pass. I was happy enough that the ordeal was finally over. Now I could relax and enjoy my bus ride back home.
So, that was my first experience of life in the US. None of this harassment would have happened if the Social Security office had just given me the right information, that these corrections are done where the error was made in the first place – the immigrations office at the airport. The surprising thing in this whole episode was, nobody knew the right answer, yet everybody seemed confident about what they knew. That’s how unsuspecting people, such as myself, get pulled into a endlessly frustrating hunt for the correct information. There was a time after this episode when I really felt like calling up that super-confident lady who had suggested me to go to Detroit. But then I thought, what the heck. Nothing I said would ever matter. If they wanted to fix this, they could have fixed this long ago. Meanwhile, if you’re reading this, I’ve already done my job of giving you the correct information. And I’m happy with that.