Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Immigration Limbo: From Residency to National Identity Card

I continue to live in immigration limbo here. . . with no end in sight.


Because I have no national identity card, just a 2-page Dec 2006 letter of residency from the Rosario delegation of the Ministry of Interior.

As a former proud card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org), renowned for its stand against national ID cards, I am distressed to report on my recent visit to the official psychological torture chamber known as the Civil Registry, which I hope will grant me just such a card. The Civil Registry is the official police-state agency which documents all citizens, their whereabouts, marital status, and family connections. Until the CR issues you a "National Identity Document," (called a "DNI") you have no legal identity in Argentina. And if they make a mistake, you pay for it!

Without your DNI, you cannot open a bank account, get a driver's license, or even buy a cell phone! Believe me, I have tried! (I envy some bloggers who say it can be done. Meanwhile, you can use a passport for some commercial and official transactions, e.g., using a credit card, renting a hotel room, or getting a tax ID number so you can get those taxes in!) Citizens cannot get married or collect social security. And DNI-less folks have to pay higher airfare on the national airline and at various international hotels!

Saturday afternoon Roberto found a crumpled "Urgent Notice" sans envelope in our mailbox. It was from the Buenos Aires Provincial Registry of Persons directing me to report post haste to the Civil Registry office in San Nicolas. Accordingly, on Monday morning, as soon as I finished handling a scheduled international call and an unexpected electrician's visit, I rushed to the downtown office which closes at 1 pm. I took all the short cuts, careful not to hit a single Evel Knievel wannabe or death-defying pedestrian or rusty ambling pickup, and I arrived just before 11 a.m.

Where do I go now, I wondered? Not a single sign offered me a clue. I surveyed the classroom-sized stuffy office jam-packed with sweaty bodies lugging glazed expressions. I managed to pull the attention of a badly dressed matron at a door-side desk away from her papers. She scowled at me, took the now smoothed official note, scowled more, and then directed me to the longest line.

Forty stifling minutes (and 10 pages of my E-Myth book) later it was my turn. The long-tressed young senorita displaying a very sexy tummy below her very cropped top, dismissed me quickly: “NO, you need to be in THAT line!” So 20 minutes later, after a cell-phoned SOS to Roberto, it was my turn again at exactly noon. This time an older greasy haired brunette eyed me, eyed my note, then eyed her cheap watch: "Sorry, too late, can’t help you today. Some other day."

Me: “No, it’s not my fault I was sent to the wrong line by your colleague!” I pointed at the empty so-called information desk. I persisted--plus Roberto, arriving in the nick of time, joined in the cause. She heaved a sigh and turned to search for my file on a long shelf lined with tattered shoe boxes with hand scrawled letters, A-C, D-E, etc, scattered along the shelf behind her.

Three minutes later she returned with the verdict: "The Buenos Aires office refused your request for a National Identity Document because you didn't submit an official translation of your birth certificate."
"Yes, I did!"
She flicked the pages, bored: "No, you did not."
Roberto: “Yes she did—18 months ago, and you all are just getting back to us now?? Do you realize she can't get a driver's license, work, or even buy a cell phone because she doesn't have this?"
A shrug.
Me: "But the Civil Registry must have it--I turned it in with all these documents you have here!"*

More shrugs, and a second clerk, a short anorexic strenuously frowning woman, joined the first. I confess I was now upset: ”You need to explain to me how this document was lost! Moreover, this is not the first time! This office lost a document when I first applied to get married!"**

Clerk 2: "Calm down; I can't think when you talk like that."

Me: "I’ll calm down when someone offers me an apology for the loss of my document and the huge inconvenience and delay this is causing me." More shrugs.

Roberto: "She’s not used to this kind of bad service.”

Both clerks: “Poor thing.” (I think I might have detected a mixture of envy and compassion for a split second there!)

Roberto, ever calm: “If she turns in another copy, can her file be resubmitted right away?"

Clerk 1: “Well, yes, I suppose so…but of course the new document would have to be a LEGAL copy." She smirked and another of those well-developed shrugs that clearly said, "Tough luck, kid."

Me: "Well, no problem! I have one because I've learned to make copies of everything I submit here. And [to her doubtful stare] it most certainly is a LEGAL copy. And because I happen to be very organized, I can find it in less than 5 minutes when I get home.”

Clerk 2: "Okay, bring it here." Roberto: "We will want someone to sign an official receipt." More shrugs and they turned away without comment. He steered me to the door as my eyes filled with tears at the total disempowerment this system provokes.

Anyway, I used the 15-minute drive home to transcend my frustration. I realize tha I had just had a truly Argentine experience because everyone here confirms equally bad treatment at the Registry office.

This experience helps me see why people give up more easily here. . . and why from birth to death, disorganization reigns. Imagine a national registry (which is after all, a records office!)that should be used as the global bad example for office organization!

This is a branch of the government with offices that cannot even put a sign up saying “DNI here" and "Birth Certificates Here." Not even a sign saying "Info Here." I watched as visitor after visitor entered, looked around helplessly, then snaked his or her way to the front of the line, and with an apology to his/her compatriot, interrupted the staff person to ask directions. I am beginning to think the disorganization is intentional, a lesson in authoritarianism.

Can you imagine the effect on worker productivity, not to mention citizen morale??? It is training in powerlessness! The cheerless expressions on staff and office visitors reminded me of the street photographs of Leningrad taken by my friend Dmitri. ["Dmitri, I notice that in your entire book, there is not one smiling face." His reply: "What is there to smile about?" From the looks, the Registry "customers" all feel badly served, and the staff members feel no pride in their work.

A popular urban legend claims that one senior citizen visited his local registry to claim his pension. "Sorry, your claim was denied." "Why?" "Because our records say you died last year." Ditto for the young man who applied for his first DNI so he could then apply to get married. “Sorry, but our records show that you died shortly after birth.” And there is NO recourse!!! No legislator, no "pot-hole" senators. Not surprising that all the employees are women (who just do what they are told "because") and that they have developed thick skins.

Update: Roberto tried to submit the new legal copy of my birth certificate translation to Registry's administrator, who refused his request to sign a receipt for it. "I am not authorized to do such a thing," she replied. Roberto was dismayed. We consulted a former Registry administrator as well as a lawyer, who advised me to just hand it in, that no lawyer wants to take on this agency because the Registry staff is known to wreak revenge by making future transactions more unpleasant (including making a mockery of the required civil wedding for any participant who complains). Such is the power of the weak there, that office full of mostly women, "just doing their jobs," cheerlessly, badly.

Sometimes I think it would have been a good thing if the British had been in control of Argentina for at least a generation, i.e., sufficient time to set up a post office and civil service that works. Sigh. [Could this be one reason the Falkland/Malvinas Islanders resist the return of their precious isles to Argentina? Who'd want to be a member of this badly run club?]

Then again, maybe it is not to late to call organization maven Julie Morgenstern (http://www.juliemorgenstern.com/to organize the Registry, hey, the whole country, from the inside out, is it? Or maybe The E-Myth author Michael Gerber (http://michaelgerber.com/) would like to use his small business development skills to fashion the Civil Registry franchise? Hmmm... then again, maybe it's better that police-state agencies do not run all that well!

*To be completely accurate, I turned them into the local National Immigrations Office representative (who triple checked to make sure the file was complete), who forwarded them to the Rosario delegation of the Ministry of the Interior, which in turn sent me the official letter of Residency dated December 2006 which arrived in January 2007. Said letter includes a note saying my file had been sent to the Buenos Aires provincial Registry office for processing a DNI. No legal residency would ever have been given without that particular document. So which office lost it???]
**Believe it or not, the Registry insisted on "an official document showing the residence of my ex-husband at the time of the divorce." ["Why?" "Who knows? But it is required." "Where will I get such a document??" "From the Civil Registry where you lived." LOL!] My ex-husband kindly sent me our home's residential tax bill from that era. I made a copy and submitted the original--and sure enough, they lost the original. They also refused to accept Roberto's original divorce document--why? Because it was from Cordoba, and that Registry does not use the exact same wording!! "Bring us a legal copy instead," the boss lady intoned in all seriousness. Ayyy!

Photo: Colonnade in Rosario's lovely, expansive Independence Park. . . not exactly a Borgian labyrinth...but notice the bump in the road and the endless path...May I remain as serene as those untroubled waters!


Francisco from Seattle said...

Hi Gayle,
I feel so bad for you since what you said about Registro Civil is so true! They are horrible. My wife's DNI tooks 3 long years and a big bag of bs...Only I don't agree about your comparison with USA bureaucracy. Also here they make you feel like s..t when you are a foreigner and don't speak 100% good english. You ever been at N.Y. , N.J. or New England? Awful experience! But again , you rigth, argentinian breaucracy sucks #1! You will need "paciencia asiática". Good luck and don't loose hope!

The belly rules the mind. ~Spanish Proverb said...

Hi Gayle,

I am a Californiana as well living in Rosario. And yes the DNI is very important for just about everything here. The only way that I have mine is that I applied years before we dicided to move here. All I can say it just take the time to walk the walk. It sucks but that is the way they do things down here of course unless you KNOW someone high up. Good luck and if you come to Rosario you are welcome to meet for a chat. Janette