Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pasaportes

After being emboldened by my luck procuring a visa for my wife and daughter, I decided to apply for a U.S. passport for my daughter too. Why not? She's eligible. And in this world, two passports are better than one.

The passport application process is quite different than that for visas. There are forms to be filled out, but you also have to submit special documents like a birth certificate on "papel sellado" (sealed paper) from the registro in San Jose (which, happily, we were able to obtain on our visa trip) and, in my case, submit certified divorce papers. Luckily, I had these leftover from my residencia process and they were certified by the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago AND the Costa Rican Consul in Chicago - bulletproof.

If your child was born in a private hospital, you have to have a letter from the doctor who delivered her, along with details of the birth. In Laila's case, she was born in one of the Social Security hospitals in Costa Rica, so a letter from the director of the hospital was sufficient. But it's still a trip to the hospital and a dice-roll on getting an appointment.

On top of this, you have to fill out a form documenting all of the places you've lived your entire life (many, for me) and a special form for a child born outside of the U.S.

But the most difficult requirement that must be met is substantiating that the parent holding U.S. citizenship (me) lived in the U.S. for a minimum of 5 years before the child's birth. The U.S. embassy's website gives some suggestions for this: college transcripts, military service records, old passports. Well, I've never served in the military and God knows where my old passports are in the Public Storage room I have in Chicago.

So I got my college transcripts from Notre Dame and hunted down all of the rest of the documentation, then DHL'ed it all to the embassy. You don't have to show up in person to submit the documentation, which is a big timesaver. Upon receipt of the documentation, the embassy reviews it all and then calls you to set up an appointment.

I got a call only a week later from a very nice woman at the embassy. She said that I needed more documentation on Laila's birth (pre-natal exam records, ultrasounds) and more documentation to prove that I lived in the U.S. a miniumum of 5 years before Laila's birth. We had all of Laila's pre-natal documentation, so I crossed that off the list. But I spent the next four weeks getting letters from employers, my high school transcripts, and my social security statements. I then set up an appointment via email, which was for for 1PM on Tuesday of this week.

We arrived at 12:30PM after a grueling drive through the mountains with heavy truck traffic. On the upside, the weather was nice, a bit windy. We entered the embassy and went through the security check. They had to open the envelope with my high school transcripts in it. I told them it wasn't official if it was opened and the guard told me not to worry, they do it all the time. We then had photos taken of Laila and proceeded to the interview area.

In contrast to the day we had our visa interview, the place was empty. There were no more than 20 people present and no one seated the outdoor holding room, about the size of a small church. I found out later that the embassy rotates days on visas and passport applicants. There are less people on passport days. After about 30 minutes, we were called by name to the interview window. The young gentlemen asked us what we had for him.

I handed him Laila's prenatal docs and vaccination book, and my high school transcripts and the other additional documentation. He examined Laila's documents and the transcripts only, and gave the rest back to me. He then made us swear an oath with right hands raised and proceeded to ask us some basic questions. When he paper-clipped Laila's photo to one of the forms, I knew we had the green light.

Her new U.S. passport should arrive via DHL in a couple of weeks. My daughter, Laila, is now, officially, a Tica-Gringa!!

¡Pura vida!

Visas

I had heard many nightmare stories about getting U.S. travel visas for Costa Rican citizens and was putting it off for Carla and Laila for a long time because of it. I couldn't bear the humiliation if they were to be denied. But in October or November of last year, I decided to bite the bullet and begin the process.

The rules for Latin Americans are different than those for, say, Italians or Irish, who can enter the country on their passport alone. All people are not created equal in the eyes of the U.S. government. That infuriates me!!

The U.S. embassy's website in S. Jose states, "Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the officer, at the time of the application for a visa... that he is entitled to nonimmigrant status..." It should be followed by an asterisk *Except for Europeans and people from other rich countries.

It goes on further to say, "Under this standard, each applicant must demonstrate that he or she has a permanent residence outside of the U.S. that he or she does not intend to abandon. The burden of proof is on the applicant to show that he or she qualifies for the visa. Proof may come in many forms, but when considered together, it must be strong enough for the interviewing officer to conclude that the applicant’s ties to Costa Rica (or other country of residence) will compel him or her to return at the end of a temporary stay in the United States."

The visa application process is a bit complex. You have to call the embassy using a credit card, and make an appointment for an interview. You also have to pay for the application process in advance at Banco de Costa Rica and bring the receipts to the interview. You then have to fill out several forms, some online, obtain certified birth and marriage certificates from the registro civil, get divorce papers certified, and painstakingly document reasons that would compel you to return to your homeland. That means gathering documents to show that you have enough money in the bank, a job, a car, a house and family ties. Since I am the sole supporter of my wife and child, I had to demonstrate the compelling reason.

After a few of weeks of getting together forms and documentation that gave me a good enough comfort level, I set up an interview for my daughter, who was less than a year-and-a-half in age. I then piggybacked my wife's interview on top of that one - kinda difficult to interview a toddler.

We had a 9AM appointment so we left for S. Jose the day before and spent the night at, Casa Roland, a B&B nearby the embassy (great place!). Upon arrival at the embassy, we had photos taken of Carla and Laila, then proceeded to the interview area. The place was packed with people, but because of Laila's age, we went to the front of the line.

My heart was pounding and my palms sweating as we were immediately directed to the first window. The guy behind it put me immediately at ease by cracking a joke about the amount of paperwork I had brought with me. He then had me sign a couple of documents I had left blank because I was unsure of who had to sign, and directed us to another window where the same thing occurred and all of the fundamental paperwork was deemed in order. I couldn't believe it: This was, so far, a PLEASANT experience! I was actually having FUN!

We then waited at the head of another line for the interview. Within about 5 minutes the shutter on the window went up and a pony-tailed young man appeared. He waved us to come forward and began the interview. He asked for Laila's birth certificate. I handed it to him. He reviewed it and then asked if it was OK to switch to English. I said my wife didn't understand much English. He just brushed it off. Now I was scared. He was interviewing me. My palms began sweating again and I had cottonmouth.

He asked me where we lived, what business I was in, how the real estate market was and why I wanted to bring my family to the U.S. I said, Playa Hermosa, real estate, tough market, and that I wanted my daughter to be able to visit her grandparents and to take my family to a White Sox Baseball game. He hesitated, looked up at me confused, and asked me WHEN I was going to the U.S. (Keep in mind that this is Decebmber and baseball season doesn't start 'til April)? I said in June or July. He then asked me why I was applying for visas NOW? I told him that if a good airfare came along, I wanted to take advantage of it and leave. He nodded his head, "Ahhh...", and remarked, "Why don't we get more people like you in here?"

The interview topic then abruptly shifted to White Sox baseball - the "...team of our new President" - then to Notre Dame football - "...when are they going to have a team?". After a few minutes of bullshitting, he said that the visas had been approved and that they would be sent to us via DHL. I was dumbfounded. I froze and didn't know what to say. Had I heard him correctly? APPROVED!!!! YESSSS!!!

I whisked Carla and Laila outside to the DHL counter before he could change his mind. The visas arrived in Liberia 5 days later (10 year for Carla, 5 year for Laila). We can now travel freely back and forth to the U.S. as a family.

When I look back at all of the horror stories I had heard and the resulting stress I put myself through, I can't help but wonder whether the visa process is just a crap shoot, a gamble. I have friends with more money, stuff, etc. than I, who have been shot down 3 times. I was in and out of there in half an hour.

Sometimes, you get a break. But I like to think I just did a good job of doing my homework and that I arrived prepared. Or maybe it's the family ties that outweigh all else.

Whatever it was... Pura vida!!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

La Laila, La Chula y El Rebelde

So my mechanic was actually able to make the situation with my pickup, El Rebelde, WORSE than it was before I brought it in. He had just replaced the fan clutch and the roller for the A/C. When I got the car back last week the temperature guage was swinging to and fro like a pendulum, AND I couldn't turn off my A/C!!

So I brought it back on Monday so he could check things out. I went across the street for lunch. When I returned my mechanic told me that I needed a new thermostat. Duh! And nevermind that he drove the damn thing from his shop in Guardia to my house and didn't notice the wildly fluctuating temperature of the engine!

Then he tells me he's checked the problem with the A/C out but it's over his head. He'll need to get an A/C specialist in to check out the roller. He then says that he's removed the thermostat, and that, even though the motor will run colder, it will be fine to drive. Same for the A/C being "ON".

So we shake hands and I start the engine. There's a noise. I open the hood. The roller is smoking. I call my mechanic over. He forgot to put a nut on the roller and it fragged.

So now I'm waiting for a new, new part and am riding my motorcyle, nick-named, La Chula (Spanish for "flirt" or "coquette"). It's been 3 days. She's always reliable.

Laila's now at the age where she likes anything "vrrroooooom!". So she really likes riding on La Chula. Carla and I sandwich her between us and ride between the beach and our house. Laila loves it. When I arrive at the beach restaurant in the evening, she can't wait to sit on La Chula and play with the key, signals and horn.

"Vrrrroooooom!" Pura vida!!