The immigration process for the not-so-dumb…

Inside of card: "is pray" - One of my closest friends sent this to me last November. This is how I have felt through most of the immigration process.

Just as I predicted, the French immigration office has finally gotten my papers in order and has scheduled me for a medical exam on the 23rd of June, seven days before my departure from France.  To this exam, I must bring a stamp showing that I have paid a 55-euro tax needed to complete my resident card. The road reaching this point has been a frustrating one and I have very little motivation to continue along its route to the end.

Let me flash back to when this process first began:
The visa I received from the French Consulate in San Francisco was a year-long visa that functioned as a “carte de séjour,” which is the equivalent of a green card in the U.S.  It also permitted me to work 60% while in France.  However, I could not work until my visa received an official stamp from the immigration office that could only be obtained after having a medical exam by one of their doctors to ensure that I was not carrying any deadly disease. All of this process is supposed to be completed within the first three months of your arrival in France.  So, how is it that 9 months later, my visa is still not “official” and I rest, for all intents and purposes, an illegal immigrant in France.

My first week in France, I attended an orientation at École normale supérieure.  One of the first items on our agenda included processing the paperwork for immigration.  I explained to the student who assisted me that I did not live in Paris and that my paperwork needed to go to Créteil, a neighboring city to Choisy-le-roi, where I live.  “Pas de problème,” he told me. “Nous allons règler tout ça pour vous.” [Don’t worry.  We’ll take care of all of this for you.]  One thing that is true for me is that, if I am in an unfamiliar situation, I tend to defer to those around me who should be more knowledgeable in the current situation.  So, despite my reservations, I went ahead and gave him all my forms and trusted that the school would take care of it for me.  Turns out that this was a pretty big mistake.

Fast forward to November 3rd:
Given that my visa needed to be official by December 9th, 3 months after my initial entrance into France, I began to worry that I had not yet received any notification that my file had been received by OFII (immigration office) nor that they had scheduled me for my medical exam. I e-mailed the coordinators of the foreign student program at ENS, who then referred me to M. Fillipi who was in charge of all this paperwork. His initial response included the following excuses: “You fell under a new procedure that has overwhelmed the prefect.  It is a mess over there.” and “We sent your file to the Paris prefect and you live in Choisy-le-roi.  We think the prefect sent your file on to Créteil.  I’ll look into this.”

One month later, on December 2nd:
Cher M. Fillipi, I still have not received anything from the immigration office.  Should I go the prefect in Paris and try to deal with this in person?

M. Fillipi: Oh, no!  They are very busy in Paris and get quite mean if you go there unexpectedly.  You could simply wait, as it is them who are in the wrong here, or you could go to Créteil to see if they have received anything.

I chose to wait as another American friend who lived in Paris had not received her doctor’s appointment, yet, either.  I reasoned that the office in Paris was just behind on their work….however, when she received her appointment at the end of January and I did not, I began to worry…

February 4, 2010:
I have been “illegal” for two months. I would like to visit Brussels, Belgium, but worry that I may have trouble getting back into France without my papers being in order.

Me: Cher M. Fillipi, I’ve been here 5 months now and my American friends have all received their papers and I have not.  Can you please verify where my file is and what I must do to take care of this?

M. Fillipi: It is really a mess this year.  You need to go to the immigration office in Paris and ask them if they have your file.  If they don’t have it, then you need to go to Créteil.  Tell them you need them to process your paperwork that day or the day after since they lost your file and you plan to travel.

M. Fillipi was not able to locate my file by telephone, so, now, after 5 months, he advises me to go where he had originally told me not to go.  I went to the immigration office, explained my situation and was told to go to the office in Créteil and start the process all over again.  The woman didn’t even look my file up on the computer to see if they had received it.  Given that the original forms were to be sent to the prefect and not directly to the immigration office, I spent a day trying to take my papers there first, only to find out that they needed to go directly to the immigration office.

February 21, 2010:
On this cloudy, rainy morning, I took the bus to the immigration office in Créteil.  When I approached the desk and explained my situation, the woman told me that the forms needed to be mailed, not brought in person. I tried to explain that I thought I could speed up the process so that I could take care of all this before going on vacation.  She photocopied my passport, but couldn’t give me a receipt to verify that I had indeed turned in my papers. “That is why you are supposed to send it by registered mail,” she told me. There was no point in asking her to process the paperwork the same day.  I knew they would simply laugh at the request.  To cover all grounds, I sent a copy of my information by registered mail with a letter explaining they were copies, so that I would have a record of having turned in my paperwork in case I was stopped at the French border when I returned from Brussels.

April 1, 2010:
I receive a letter from the immigration office indicating that I need to send a copy of my visa in order for my file to be processed.  The letter emphasizes that the papers must be sent by mail “en recommandé,” (registered mail).  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the woman at the immigration office had copied my visa to the back of the copy of my passport.  The processor had simply not looked thoroughly enough and neither did I.  This was just a few days before I left for vacation, so I dutifully copied my visa and sent it again.

May 17, 2010:

Somehow, the immigration office has now lost the copy of my passport because they sent me another letter asking for the photo page and that I must send it, once again, by registered mail.  This time, I write a note on their letter explaining that they have had both pages of my passport (photo page and visa page) all along, but here is an extra copy, just in case.

Today, June 10th:
Finally, I receive what I have been waiting for, 9 1/2 months later.  I now have a medical appointment set for June 23rd and I must bring this 55-euro stamp that shows I’ve paid a tax for the resident card.  However, I leave for the U.S. on June 30th…

Soooo, the question I ask myself is, do I bother going through the exam and pay a tax I can no longer afford in order to be “legal,” or do I just say “Damn it all to hell!” and send them a letter saying I am leaving on the 30th, can I opt out of all this?  If I send a letter, it will take them a month to respond and I will be gone by then.  I could try to call, but phone calls have rarely proven useful with the immigration office.

All of this has made me ponder the struggles other immigrants must go through in trying to be legal in a foreign country.  I have a big advantage in that I speak, read, write, and understand French fluently, so communication was not part of the problem.  I also had a flexible schedule as I was a student with a grant to live off of.  I didn’t need to take off work in order to take care of my papers.  How hard it must be for those who don’t have the same advantages.  I know not all illegal immigrants are illegal because of this type of bureaucratic confusion, but I am sure that some of them have tried to regulate their papers and have possibly given up when it became difficult and so time-consuming.  I can only imagine how frustrating this whole system is to someone from another country who doesn’t speak the language.  One of the first things Western nations need to do to help illegal immigrants regulate their papers is to make the process less confusing and provide interpreters to help the process go smoother.

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