My husband and I—both born and raised U.S. citizens—have lived in Central and South America in the past, and on both sides of the border, in New and Old Mexico; so we have heard a lot of immigration stories.
We have even had minor immigration run-ins of our own. Once, I got in trouble for accidentally being in El Salvador illegally. And, for a while, it looked as though we would have to overstay our Mexican visas. Another time, and to our great embarrassment, we hired a sort of coyote to “facilitate” entering Honduras. But we have never really been constrained by borders. Not until now.
Now, the U.S. State Department is upgrading its system for registering U.S. citizens born abroad. For the indefinite future, they are not accepting application appointments. Since we’re not about to leave our one-month-old baby behind in an emergency, we find ourselves in a position that our blue U.S. passports usually protect us from: we may not enter our own country, at least not if we intend to bring our newborn baby home with us.
“If you have an emergency or live and death situation,” reads the email we received last week from the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara (they would not answer our question over the phone). “Please send us an e-mail with your request…”
Yes. In a “life and death” situation, we are supposed to sit down at a computer, type out an email, and wait for a reply.
Our second son was born right before Christmas in Morelia, Mexico, where my husband is a Fulbright scholar. In the days after his birth, our son had no name or nationality. Not on paper anyway. He was just our baby. Sweet and warm and wondrous.
Then the holidays ended and public offices reopened and we took our dossier of identification (marriage license, our nonimmigrant resident cards, passports, etc.), two friends to serve as witnesses, and the baby himself to the Civil Registry to apply for a Mexican birth certificate.
It was the sort of project that takes all day in Mexico, so although we knew Ana and Eric* only vaguely when we arrived, we had plenty of time to fill in the gaps. Sitting on a narrow bench along one wall of the Registry while we waited to see the judge, we chatted about births with language barriers and about the logistics of our cross-border families.
Eric grew up in Chicago, a fact that is pretty obvious when he speaks English. His family still lives there. But he isn’t a U.S. citizen. Ana is Mexican too, but their four-year-old daughter is American. It’s a pretty tame story—they were in the U.S. legally, they are hoping to return legally. Eric likes dogs and wants to open a kennel. Ana would like to have more children but knows that they’ll never return to the U.S. and Eric’s family, even to visit, if they have children in Mexico. For now, they are waiting like millions of others, in immigrant limbo.
For the first time, filing for a foreign birth certificate, I felt that I could relate—on a minute scale—with stories like Ana’s and Eric’s. I was, after all, the American parent of a Mexican child. Deep down, however, I felt more than a little entitlement. While I felt great sympathy for those who didn’t have my birthrights, I felt invincible to the frustrations and heartbreaks of other families split across borders. I knew immigrant stories, but I also knew stories about U.S. embassies going to extraordinary lengths to fish U.S. citizens out of trouble. I had been careful never to need such fishing-out myself, but in all the years I had lived in other countries, I always trusted that an embassy had my back.
Before we moved to Mexico pregnant, my husband applied his much-lauded research skills to the question of having a child in another country. It didn’t appear to be a complicated process. We would apply in person with a birth certificate, proof of parental citizenship and residency in the U.S., and evidence of the pregnancy (ultrasounds and so forth). With this, we would be issued a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or a CRBA, which our son would use as proof of citizenship, along with the passport we would apply for simultaneously.
The only hitch we foresaw was breaking it to our son one day that he could never be president.
That is, until the evening after our visit to the Civil Registry when we tried to schedule our appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara. A webpage led to a phone that led back to the webpage. An email to the Consulate revealed that their systems were being upgraded and CRBA appointments would not be accepted until January 18. A little Googling fleshed this out: the new CRBA would only be printed by two passport agencies in the U.S. and would include “a variety of state-of-the-art security features to help prevent fraud and identity theft.” In the meantime, little citizens born abroad would have to suck their thumbs and wait.
On January 18th, we tried again without luck. A few months earlier, we had sat for hours while Mexican immigration adapted to its own new-and-improved visa system. Our quest for a CRBA was already beginning to feel uncannily like a high-tech version of a waiting room in Mexico.
On January 19th, my husband persevered until he got to talk to a human. When he asked about scheduling an appointment, the citizens’ services representative blandly hoped they would begin scheduling again “sometime next month.”
And, just so we knew, what were we supposed to do in the case of an emergency?
It was my question. I like to have contingency plans, and I have a vivid imagination for conjuring situations that might require them.
But citizens’ services wasn’t going to take a name or send us a fact sheet or even answer the question. My husband was instructed to submit his query to an email address.
This left us to imagine our options for ourselves. Would we smuggle him in our suitcase? Hire a coyote? Leave him in Morelia with his 14-year-old babysitter? Was it lawful to even try to take him—an unrecognized U.S. citizen—with us? Or would we face charges for human trafficking?
The answer to his email, when it came, was yet another email address—not even a number to let my people call!—to be used in a life-or-death situation.
Now, exiled while the U.S. ramps up its capacity to keep people out of the country with a variety of state-of-the-art security features, we wait.
As we languish in immigrant limbo for real, I’ve continued to draft contingency plans. And this has led me to shift my perspective and see that we need to approach our problem from this side of the border. If the U.S. can’t help us, there is always Mexico.
With a Mexican birth certificate, we can apply for a Mexican passport. With a passport, we can join Ana and Eric and so many other families in the long line for a visa to enter the U.S.
In the process, I might well get more of an immigrant experience than I ever bargained for. After all, as my husband and I can’t help joking, what are the odds of scoring a visa for an unemployed Mexican male who might just want to stay in the U.S. indefinitely?
*Names have been changed.