There are other things I wanted to write about more than this, but bureaucracy blew up in my life yesterday. I hope it’s nothing I can’t fix, and it’s nowhere near as serious as bureaucratic problems other people have, but it’s become a definite theme in our lives right now. There are three things I’m worrying about simultaneously, and I decided to write about them in order of what I worry about the most, though that’s not necessarily in order of seriousness. It’s also cause for reflection on how complicated international travel and citizenship remain, despite hopes that things would get easier with more international cooperation and that thing we call globalization.
When we left Mongolia last year, my university required that I cancel our visas, since I was not sure if I would return. I had a three-year multiple-entry visa, of which I’d only used one year. Emma and I would be coming back to Mongolia for two nights after our trip to June, and I would be returning for three weeks in the fall, but I could do both of those on the usual visitor visa, which I could get at the airport on arrival. If I had known then that we would be wanting to return to Mongolia for a longer period of time, I would have tried to keep our visas. They would be valid another year, and we’d have one less barrier to reentry.
Getting the visa the first time was straightforward enough. Once I sent all the required documentation to my university, I just had to wait to receive an invitation code from them. Then I could work with the Mongolian Consulate in San Francisco to get the visas. The trick was that I had already planned a trip to Switzerland in June, returning in mid-July, so we would need our passports for that. Our planned departure for Mongolia was August 15, so we would need the visas for that. It gave us only a few weeks to get our passports up to San Francisco, get the visas placed in them, and get them back before our departure. In the end, it worked out fine, though they initially forgot to request a visa for Emma, despite having all of her information, and she had to be added to the request at the last minute. A very helpful man at the Mongolian consulate talked me through the process, and we didn’t even have to travel to San Francisco in person.
Having that multiple entry visa was great, too. It meant we didn’t have to apply for exit visas when we travelled to Thailand for spring break, for instance. It caused a little trouble at the airport when we returned for those two days after Japan, before we flew back to the USA for good (or so we thought). Because of the visa pages in our passports, they received considerable scrutiny at the immigration booth and supervisors had to be called over as well. Fortunately I had our onward flight information showing that we were only back temporarily. I had a few moments of nervousness, because we had left most of our luggage in storage at a hotel in Ulaanbaatar rather than carting it around Japan with us, so we really needed to get back in. But finally the officials were satisfied and let us through.
The main reason I regret not still having that visa is that now we will have to apply for new ones to get back into Mongolia. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. But COVID-19 has changed everything. I’ve already written about Mongolia’s border closure and their process for repatriating Mongolian citizens trapped overseas, one plane load at a time. They have sped this up slightly, but they have also been so successful at containing the virus that it’s unlikely they will change the process significantly any time soon. There is little information from the government itself, but rumors abound on the online groups I joined when we were living in Mongolia. Besides Mongolian citizens, there are many international workers and students who are stuck overseas, separated from their families and work since January. I can’t imagine what hardships they are enduring. They will likely have priority for returning to Mongolia over people who don’t currently hold visas (like us). It’s not at all clear when the government will start issuing new visas. I worry about this a fair amount and kick myself quite a bit.
The next issue is that Emma’s passport expires in February. When I wrote to my university’s visa expert, she said that it would be better to renew the US passport, because Immigration would only issue a visa for the length of the passport’s validity, and I would have to apply for a new visa on top of her new passport. I would be fine with this, but now that it seems likely we won’t be able to return before December or January at the earliest, it makes more sense to get her passport renewed now. This is still easier said than done.
At the time I started looking into it, back in April, the US Department of State was only issuing passport renewals in “life-or-death emergency” cases where travel was within 72 hours. Since our need didn’t fall into that category, there would be no guarantee of when they would start issuing ordinary passport renewals. Most passport offices were closed because of COVID-19, and though you were welcome to apply for a new passport, there was no indication of when those applications would be processed. I had friends who had applied for renewals in March before the closures, and they were still waiting for theirs. The regular expedited service (3-week renewals) had been cancelled, so if you applied, your application went into the big pile of those waiting already.
Since then, starting in June, several passport offices have re-opened with limited application processing. I started watching closely as they posted the weekly number of applications received, the number waiting, and the number issued, on the State Department website every Thursday. The progress reassures me. Twice I made appointments at the local post office to bring in Emma’s application, but each time I cancelled. The thought of being trapped here without her passport should the opportunity to apply for a visa suddenly arise is worrying. There were persistent rumors that Mongolia might allow international arrivals in August or September, and while I don’t think they are true, it would be terrible to miss the opportunity because we are waiting for Emma’s passport to arrive. Each week, the number of passports waiting issuance goes down by around 100,000 (right now the update shows 1.31 million waiting). If that trend continues, and if it seems hopeless that we’ll be able to go back to Mongolia in the next couple of months, I will go ahead and make another appointment and stick with it this time. It’s a question of balancing how long a renewal will take with how much time is left in the validity of her current passport, with how likely I feel we’ll be able to travel.
Speaking of passports, this brings me to the third bureaucratic challenge I’m facing. This is one of my own doing, and it’s a big one. I guess the first lesson is really not to procrastinate. Well, sometimes procrastination can pay off. Like when I discovered that what I thought was my birth certificate really wasn’t my birth certificate, when I tried to use it to get a Pennsylvania drivers license back in 2009. What I had was a “Birth Registration Certificate” issued by the county Office of Registration of Vital Statistics from my birthplace in New Jersey. It had a raised seal from the State of New Jersey, as well as a seal from the office that issued the document. According to the Pittsburgh DMV staff, it wasn’t a real birth certificate. So I went back with my passport (which I should have used in the first place) to get the license and started to research online how to get a birth certificate. At the time, I would have had to mail a letter and check to the office in the county of my birth in order to get a new certificate, and it seemed like too much trouble for something I wouldn’t need anyway because I had a passport, right? Every once in a while, I would think about it, but I never pursued it because of the complexity required.
Something happened yesterday that made me realize I really should have my own birth certificate. I have four official copies of Emma’s because people seem to keep needing them. Usually I get the originals back, but sometimes someone keeps one, so I ordered extras a while back. But in the course of applying for a renewal of my Swiss passport (complete story to follow), I thought maybe it would be a really good idea for me to have a few copies of mine. So this morning I went back online and checked out the New Jersey Department of Health’s office of vital statistics to see what was involved. Like most things should, it has gotten easier to get a birth certificate—amazing! I could now order online and provide two pieces of ID showing my current address, and now (hopefully) I just have to wait eight weeks or so to get three official copies in the mail. So sometimes procrastination isn’t a terrible thing, as some bureaucratic systems actually have gotten a little easier to navigate.
But let me get back to what I had started writing about. Thanks to my mother, I have dual nationality with Switzerland. I was able to get Swiss citizenship back in the early 1980s because the Swiss decided that the children of Swiss women were as Swiss as the children of Swiss men. I got a Swiss passport, but it expired in the early 1990s. By the time I got around to applying for a renewal, they had switched to biometric passports which required a digital photo and fingerprints. I would have to go up to the consulate in Los Angeles to apply in person. I hate driving in LA more than just about anything, so I procrastinated on that. But when Emma was born, I dutifully registered her with the Swiss consulate, in the hopes that she, too, would be eligible for citizenship. I received a document in return asking me how exactly her name should appear in the Swiss passport. That was the end of it. I didn’t follow up with renewing my own passport or applying for hers, because I had an infant, was finishing a PhD, and had to look after elderly and dying parents for the next few years. Then one thing happened after another, until this month, when I finally decided to try to renew my Swiss passport and see about getting hers.
I looked at the Swiss consulate in San Francisco’s website, and found the section for passport renewals. I changed my address with them for good measure, and then submitted an application to renew my ancient passport. I received an email back from a consular officer asking me to update my civil status before they could proceed with the passport renewal. The options were “single (never married),” “married,” “divorced,” or “widowed.” Well, I couldn’t claim I was never married, so I ticked “divorced.” I also had to list any minor children, so I listed Emma.
About an hour later (an hour!) I received a reply that while the canton offices in Switzerland (in Switzerland!) were able to confirm the registration of my daughter, they had no record of my marriage much less my divorce. I had thought I had registered both with the Swiss consulate then located in Los Angeles, but apparently not. Normally, I am pretty good at paperwork, but there are times when I find it difficult. All I can think is that at the time of my marriage and the divorce only two years later, there was so much happening that registering everything with the Swiss consulate slipped through the cracks.
I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail on the marriage or divorce themselves, except to say that they both entailed the biggest bureaucratic nightmares I’ve ever experienced. Again, not as bad as those faced by many people (e.g. asylum seekers in the US right now), but just let me say that marrying an Ethiopian in Ethiopia and then returning to the US and trying to bring him back with you isn’t the easiest thing to do. The paperwork from all of that was in one of the boxes I moved to our apartment, and I just went through it a few weeks ago, which gave me the opportunity to relive the experience and a bit of the PTSD. The assumption of the embassy officials in Addis Ababa is that an American woman can’t really love an Ethiopian man, so the marriage must be a case of visa fraud (it emphatically wasn’t; we loved each other). At any rate, I weeded out all but the most important documents, thinking that it was so long ago (we were married in 2000) that it wouldn’t be relevant for much in my future.
When I saw the list of documents that the Swiss government was expecting of me to register the marriage and divorce, I nearly keeled over. To register the marriage, I needed “a certified long copy of the original of the long form of [my] ex-spouse’s birth certificate, complete with the exact names of parents as well as the exact place of birth (no photocopies), photocopy of [my] ex-spouse’s passport with name after marriage (pages with personal details), complete certified copy of the original of the marriage certificate (no abstract) issued by the competent County Recorder’s office (no photocopies),” and an attached form with my ex-spouse’s signature on it. To register the divorce, I needed a “certified copy of the original of the final divorce decree showing the exact date when the judgment entered into effect (no photocopies), photocopy of [my] passport with name after divorce (pages with personal details),” and an attached form, also signed by my ex-spouse.
The divorce documents will be a cinch (except for his signature), because the divorce happened in San Diego, but the others?
Did I mention I got married in Ethiopia?
Did I mention I married an Ethiopian? Who happens to be living in Ethiopia now? Maybe I didn’t mention that last part before, but there it is.
Here’s where the procrastination comes in. Had I done this when it originally happened, it would have been a lot easier, of course. But if I had even done it THREE MONTHS AGO, it would have been easier, because my ex-spouse was in San Diego from January through April. I didn’t manage to see him, in part because I am objectively terrible at getting together with people, and then the COVID-19 crisis hit and we were staying home. He left for Ethiopia at the end of April, and I don’t even have good contact information for him except Facebook Messenger, which shows how terrible I am at keeping in touch with people. He has a lovely Ethiopian partner, whom we met shortly before they moved from San Diego back to Mekelle, Ethiopia with their two gorgeous daughters in 2016.
So now things seem quite difficult. Especially his birth certificate copy, the marriage certificate, and photocopy of his passport. And the signatures. I have the original marriage certificate and an official translation by the city translation center in Mekelle, Ethiopia, but here is the real trick.
At the top of the email the Swiss consulate sent me was the following verbiage: “In order to register your marriage and divorce with the Swiss Consulate and the competent Cantonal authority in Switzerland, please submit the following documents by mail at your earliest convenience (please note that all documents should have been issued by the authorities within the last six months. No documents older than six months accepted, except passport copy).”
Bold and underline are original.
So now, in order to renew my Swiss passport, I am left with the task of procuring new certified copies of my ex-spouse’s birth certificate and our marriage certificate, as well as a photocopy of his passport, and his signature on two documents.
We’re in sporadic touch on Facebook Messenger, and he lives in Mekelle now, so I can ask him for help with the documents, right? No problem!
This brings me to one of the points I want to make about all of this. Many of us tend to take our connectivity for granted here in the US. I know this because I teach university undergrads who think the Internet is the best way to send a message to everyone in the world because everyone has the Internet. I know this because I ask them. Every time I teach my course on the Information Age, I ask my students, “If you wanted to send a message that would reach potentially everyone in the world, what medium would you use?” Invariably, the first answer people give is “The Internet!” Which is wrong. According to the website Internet World Stats, currently about 62% of the world’s population has Internet access. Which means that 38% does not. If you sent a message via the Internet, it could potentially reach nearly five billion people. Which is a lot. It’s much more than the entire world population when I was born. But a bit under three billion people wouldn’t be able to access it, which is also a lot. It’s a bit less than the entire world population when I was born. (The answer to my question, which the occasional student gets right, is the radio. There’s a bit more than one radio set per person in the world. More people have access to radio broadcasts than the Internet, and those with the Internet have radio access whether they think of it that way or not.)
But my ex-spouse is fairly well-connected by local standards, because I do see his Facebook posts every once in a while (so he’s among the 18% or so of Ethiopians in Ethiopia who have Internet access). I wish I had gotten other contact information, though, because it’s better to use more than one approach when you are trying to contact anyone for an important reason. I basically have to wait, hope for the best, and try to get in touch with him through mutual contacts if I can’t reach him on my own.
These problems are not really earth-shattering. Though I am feeling quite inept and ridiculous, I will likely be able to renew my Swiss passport eventually. In the meanwhile, I also have a US passport. Refugees often do not have any passport; they are in a genuinely difficult situation. I am not an asylum seeker here; I have the benefit of citizenship. And US citizenship isn’t a bad one to have, though it won’t get us into Europe at the moment. But this brings me to the other point I wanted to make with all of this. If you’ve stayed with me up to now, I very much appreciate it, and you no doubt have thoughts of your own at this point (please share them if you feel so inclined).
What I can’t help thinking about is how the rhetoric around globalization that has been kicking around for around 30 years now led some people to think that international travel would get easier and easier. In some ways, for some people, that is true. But many, perhaps most, people are as stuck as ever, if not more stuck. The right-wing populist nationalism that has been sweeping through many countries (ahem, ahem) has not helped matters. Cosmopolitan types used to dream of open borders, with people crossing back and forth at will, whether for work, study, or tourism. A global Schengen Area. This now seems naïve, as many countries still have security or economic interest in controlling access to their territories. Human movement across borders has increased, but not always intentionally (refugeeism has risen and with the climate crisis will continue to), and not always easily. We are still bogged down in acquiring necessary documents, visas, and other requirements for international travel, often at significant personal effort and expense. They are, after all, a source of revenue.
COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus haven’t helped either. They have provided governments with a reason to close borders or significantly restrict travel. It’s easy to imagine a new level of bureaucracy developed to control the spread of the virus, probably on a country-by-country basis. Each country already has its own entry requirements (or closed borders) and rules on quarantining and testing. It will take a long time for this to stabilize. In the meanwhile, how many people are bound not just by bureaucracy but by the need to preserve public health? And how will this unfold?