Police State? Surely, You Jest?
I have a vivid memory of the moment that Rick told me that he'd accepted a job position in Europe. It was a Friday evening and we were in our bathroom getting ready for a night out. I was standing at my vanity applying mascara, when Rick casually dropped the bomb. He'd be leaving for Belgium on Sunday. I can still see the look of astonishment on my own face.
Forty-eight hours later, he was on a plane to Belgium, set to begin a month long french language immersion course. I was left home, to deal with the fallout. We'd long discussed the pros and cons of a foreign job assignment, and had decided that if the opportunity presented itself, we'd most likely take it. However, the first time opportunity knocked, it appeared in the form of a move to India. We promptly slammed the door. A move to Belgium, capital of the European Union and NATO headquarters, sounded tame enough.
The move itself, didn't happen overnight. Rick had business issues to deal with, which included securing a work visa from the Belgian government. The entire move hinged on that visa. With the application process underway, Rick tackled the next hurdle, the language barrier. He was the new plant manager of a fiberglass facility in French- speaking southern Belgium, and was expected to conduct business in the language of the country. High school French would only take him so far. Thus, he was enrolled in what we laughingly referred to as "language boot-camp."
The human resources department at the company Rick worked for, helped us with passports, insurance, house-hunting, school placement, airline tickets, the shipment of our household goods and the sale of our stateside home. There was an outrageous amount of paperwork associated with all of it, so I had my hands full.
Needless to say, I wasn't expected to involve myself in the business-related concerns associated with Rick's new job. However, it was impossible not to wonder why it was taking so long to obtain the work visa. Apparently, the Belgian government was less than thrilled that an American was being placed in a job position of authority, on Belgian soil. It meant, one less job for a Belgian.
Eventually, the visa was granted. Rick cautioned the kids and I, that we needed to be on best behavior while living abroad, as we were representatives not only of our country, but of the corporation he worked for. One slip-up and we would give our host government the excuse it sought to send us packing.
Shortly after we'd settled our household, I received an early morning visit from the local police. They appeared at my door, and asked to see my passport. The policemen spoke English and were pleasant, but serious, as they questioned me to determine if I was indeed the person that I claimed to be. They appeared to check my answers to the paperwork they had in hand, which included copies of our passport photos. Satisfied, they thanked me and were on their way.
Puzzled and unnerved by the visit, I called a neighbor that I considered the authority on all things related to being an American expatriate. She laughed and said she understood my wariness. As a resident alien, I should expect the authorities to come knocking at least twice a year.
At the end of our first year in Belgium, we were required to present ourselves in front of a local magistrate to request a visa renewal. On our way, Rick and I went over the protocol for the meeting, with the girls. There would be no messing around - no joking, laughing, or fighting. In fact, it would be best if nobody spoke at all unless spoken to. Got it? They got it.
The five of us were individually questioned by the grim looking bureaucrat that sat behind the ornate wooden counter, in the very dark, musty building. Nobody giggled, smiled or fidgeted while waiting their turn. It was as though we collectively held our breath. Upon leaving, we were once again reminded that from an economic/cultural standpoint, we were guests in the country and could be asked to leave at any time. I felt like a bug on a sidewalk.
Fortunately, we managed to complete our corporate tour of duty without drawing any negative attention.
About four years later, I had an experience that evoked memories of the solemnity surrounding our visit to the foreign magistrate's office, and the seriousness with which we regarded our alien resident status.
We'd built, and were living on a small horse farm outside of Palm Beach, Florida. During the winter months, we rented stalls to a family from Texas that flew back and forth for the horse show season.
The Texans employed a Mexican groom, that they housed in an apartment on our property. I was assured that he was a legal resident. Every week he collected his pay in cash from the horse trainer (another employee of the Texans), sealed it in an envelope, and mailed it to his wife in Mexico. He told me that he was saving to build a house in his home village, and simply came here to work. He considered himself very lucky to have steady employment with a private individual, as opposed to a business.
For a month at Christmas, the groom left to visit his family in Mexico. Our boarders hired a young Englishwoman to care for their horses. She had quite the personality, and loved to talk. Over the course of the next few weeks, I learned that she'd come to the States on a short-term tourist visa, and upon arrival, was instructed by friends to make contact with a man in Miami who would take care of her immigration and employment status. She did so.
For an unspecified sum of money, he provided her with documentation, an official student visa, and enrolled her in the American School of Equestrian Studies, which oddly enough, was located in his one room office in the back of a strip mall. He also helped her secure employment. Needless to say, she never attended any classes.
I was flabbergasted by her admission, and repeated what I was told to some of my friends and neighbors. Most just shrugged and chuckled at the ingenuity behind the scheme. A few had even hired barn employees through similar service providers. I wasn't impressed or amused, and went to sleep each night wondering if we'd be raided by the US Immigration and Naturalization Services.
The Mexican groom was supposed to return on a given date, but we were told he was having some trouble getting back into the country (another clue that he probably wasn't here legally). The night before her temporary employment was to end, my barn mate told me that she didn't like Florida, and would be heading west, where she'd join some friends and hopefully fall off the radar. The next day, the permanent employee returned from Mexico, the gal from England left, and life on our farm went on as usual.
For some time, I wondered if I should 'do something' with the information I had regarding the man in Miami that sold false documents to people living illegally in the country. Of course, what exactly did I know? Not much, when it came right down to it. I felt like a bad American.
When the pace of the show season picked up, the groom in our barn was assisted by a charming young bloke from Ireland. He too was living in the States on an expired tourist visa. He was sweet and missed his mum back in Cork. I felt bad and made him pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. A week later, he too was gone.
A few years later, a friend of mine married a Welshman who was living in California on a work visa. The marriage caused some to speculate that the guy was using our friend to get his green card. Of course, between the experience I'd had in Florida, and what I saw living around me in southern California, the first thought that went through my head at the suggestion was, why bother going to so much trouble?
When it comes to living in the United States illegally, nobody, including the government really seems to give a hoot!