Stickman Readers' Submissions April 21st, 2014

Cry Freedom

In a recent post on this site about freedoms in Thailand, I read this line: “In how many countries are foreign residents required to report to police?"

At least one.

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My ex-wife came to the United States in 1997 on a tourist visa. She applied for her permanent residence visa ("green card") as soon as she arrived.

It took three years and three thousand dollars to receive her green card. During that time she had to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service every six months.

The closest office was in Omaha, a four-hour drive from our home in Iowa City. So twice a year we had to pack ourselves and our two infant children into my old car and leave our home at 3 a.m., drive across the almost featureless Nebraska prairie so that we could get a number and stand outside in Midwestern weather with hundreds of others. Most of the others were Mexicans, a few were Amish, who bring their wives from Germany to avoid inbreeding.

Usually we got inside the building by 10 o’clock and to the desk by lunch time. A couple of times were stood within feet of the desk for the hour the officer ate his lunch. It took only a few minutes to get the appropriate stamps and pay the appropriate fees. We would spend the afternoon at Omaha’s famous zoo, a bribe to keep the kids manageable through the morning, and be home around 10 p.m.

My wife was married to a US citizen, and she was the mother of two minor US citizens. She had a part-time job, had a credit rating of 600, was a full-time student at a community college, and had no criminal record.

But we still had to make the drive and report to the cops. We still had to suffer “the look” from the officer behind the desk, the look when he sees that your wife is younger than you and from Thailand.

After three years we finally got to go to the final interview, this one in Des Moines with the Justice Department. We were instructed to bring proof that we had a life together: utility bills with both our names on them, joint tax returns, medical bills, photographs of family events, all the reams of paperwork chronicling our official existence as a couple. (We had done this same thing once a year in Thailand to renew my residence visa.)

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I had spent many hours assembling all the documentation and photographs into a thick binder. I had gone through the binder with Mem, discussing which photographs best demonstrated our family life: wedding, birthday parties, a trip to Wat Arun, six trips to the Omaha zoo.

We prepared for this interview like our lives depended on it, which we thought was the case. Mem wanted to stay in America. I wanted to stay in America. We stressed out over this last all-important interview like a Korean high school student whose father wants him to be a dentist.

We made the drive the night before and checked into a hotel. In the morning we got the kids up and fed and bathed and dressed in their best clothes and into a taxi. Andy was five-and-a-half years old, Mandy was three: the age where people judge you if you push them in a stroller but they still get exhausted after walking ten feet and beg to be carried. We got to the office half an hour before the appointment. I had missed a spot shaving and was extremely self conscious about the small patch of stubble on my jaw line.

And in a small, windowless olive green room lined with filing cabinets, seated on a vinyl bench between two artificial but still somehow dehydrated ficus trees, my wife and I began to argue.

I don’t remember what it was about. Probably about nothing, probably just all that stress finally coming to a boil in the worst possible place. We began to snipe at each other. Mean little comments delivered between clenched teeth while wiping a baby’s nose.

When we were finally called into the officer’s office we were going at each other full bore. We dragged our two squalling offspring and bags and bundles and coats and binders into the guy’s room and hardly noticed him, despite the seven-foot-tall flags of the United States of America and the State of Iowa that stood just behind him.

The guy was finishing up something, and he told us to take chairs and wait a moment. He began shuffling papers.

We arranged ourselves and our clutter on the two guest chairs, and continued to argue in hushed voices. As we always did when we were fighting in public, we switched to Thai. We didn’t even think about it. In Iowa speaking in Thai is pretty private, so that’s what we did when we were fighting.

We did this for about a minute while the officer finished what he was doing and opened our file. We sat up straight and gave him our attention, but Mem said something snide to me out of the corner of her mouth and I replied. Then she replied. Andy was trying to bean his sister with a Hot Wheels car; I put the palm of my hand on his forehead and pushed until his butt hit the filthy carpet. “Stay there,” I growled in English. He whimpered but stayed there.

The officer looked at us, looked at the document in his manila folder, took up his pen and signed it. He handed it across his desk to Mem and said, “Congratulations. You are a permanent resident of the United States.”

We were shocked speechless. Mem stood and in her confusion accepted her green card in Thai style, at attention, step forward two paces, give a formal wai, extend the right hand with left hand supporting the wrist, accept the document, snap the wrist, bow the head, step back two paces at attention.

I had not even taken my binder out of my briefcase. “But.. but… I have utility bills…”

“That’s okay,” he said, looking at me with pity, “You’re married.”

Mem is still in America on that green card. We are no longer married. She has never had to return to Omaha or Des Moines, but either child is big enough to drive her if she does. She pays her taxes, and pays her speeding tickets, and I suppose now and then somebody at the NSA runs her name through a computer. Verizon Wireless keeps detailed records of every phone call she makes and every web site she visits, records that are apparently available to the police without a warrant. They do this for everybody in my country, citizen or not.

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