Upside Down Immigration Blues

Saturday, July 11, 2009

After you tell a story a few times it loses its luster. Well-intentioned friends indulge you, listening with a polite gaze until you realize you’ve told them before. Then you have to decide whether to pretend you’re unaware and barrel ahead or cut your losses and come clean. “I’ve told you this one, haven’t I?” Sharing your embarrassment, they nod. Still, I prefer these gentle souls to hardy, honest types who can’t be bothered. Just as you’re getting into the rhythm they call an abrupt halt, “You’ve already told me this.” Ouch. So with apologies to those who have listened to me this week I’ll tell the story one last time.

It’s a longish story about rules. But it’s also about getting along and going overboard. It has a bit of a moral, but it’s short on suspense – if you didn’t have to live it! Here’s how it goes:

On June 28, 2007 (precise dates are important, as you’ll see) my family and I arrived in New Zealand as permanent residents, our passports bearing two lovely new pages: a “resident’s visa” scheduled to expire on an “indefinite” date, and a “returning resident’s visa” (lovingly known as an “RR” visa) that would expire two years from our arrival. That would be June 28, 2009.

You don’t want to be caught overseas with an expired RR visa, having been notified in multiple official ways that absent a valid RR visa you may not be allowed to board any flight into New Zealand. “May” is a funny word, and I’m an American. I read it as “will.” But then I heard a story from my friend, Debra. She forgot about an expired RR visa. When she went to check in for a flight from Los Angeles to Auckland the woman behind the counter took a little too long examining her passport. Then she wrinkled her nose and picked up the phone.

Debra knew she was in trouble. But she wasn’t sure how much. If she had been trying to enter America, she’d be in BIG trouble. But trouble takes on a different meaning in this gentle country. Deb was allowed to board her flight in LA, but almost missed the flight to Dunedin waiting while Auckland immigration officials scrambled to get her a temporary RR visa. Comparatively speaking – not such big trouble. But Deb is a much better immigrant and a much nicer person than I. I figured if I did such a thing they’d never let me on the plane. I’d be stuck in LAX like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

My family can testify that I was obsessive about that RR visa. New Zealand will extend the RR for a year if you haven’t committed a major crime. But I was after the coveted “indefinite extension.” I wanted to be a “permanent resident with indefinite right of return,” and I wanted it BAD. To get it you have to meet CRITERIA. I can handle criteria. I have a PhD. Hell, I live for criteria! So I memorized those criteria.

The first was simple: spend at least 184 days in New Zealand each year of the two years that your RR visa is valid. How hard could that be? For me it was beyond hard. It was impossible. Failing the “time spent in New Zealand” criterion you still have options. One is to place $1,000,000 in an approved investment for two years. One is to run a successful NZ business for two years. Others are equally impossible except for, “be a NZ tax resident for two years.”

“What is a NZ tax resident?” Happens there are criteria for this too. The would-be resident must “demonstrate an enduring commitment to New Zealand.” Enduring commitment? This sounds complicated and difficult. My yoga teacher was teaching me to, “embrace impermanence.” I was starting to get it. Nothing’s enduring! Commitment to a nation-state? That sounds hazardous to anyone’s health! Before I went off the deep end, Larry (my husband the tax attorney) explained that in this case enduring commitment is jargon for “pay your taxes.” In New Zealand that is pretty easy. You don’t have a choice. Taxes are automatically deducted from wages & savings account interest. Everything. I paid my taxes without lifting a finger. I didn’t even have to file a return! So I did. For two years I paid my taxes and wondered what they really meant by “enduring commitment.”

Turns out, they really meant “pay your taxes.”

In March 2009 I was preparing to leave New Zealand for what could be a long time. I called the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) to ask how I could persuade immigration that I was a tax resident. As anyone who’s been here for over three months could have told you, “There’s a form for that” There’s a form for everything! This one’s an immigration form called “Confirmation of Tax Resident Status.” Once approved and stamped by the IRD it constitutes official proof of enduring commitment. I made an appointment, went in, and a nice young woman signed and stamped my form. I felt so secure walking home with that form in my pocket and figuring I had an enduring commitment to New Zealand even though I was about to leave for a long time.

I was in Salt Lake for a couple of months. One day I turned to our kitchen calendar and realized with a hint of panic that it was June. I could either go back to New Zealand BEFORE my RR visa expired on the 28th or I could take my chances and do it “overseas” In this case that meant through the NZ consulate in D.C. The consulate didn’t return emails or phone calls. Besides there was that subtle threat in the official pamphlets that listed “applying overseas” among the reasons why a visa might be denied. It was time to head South.

I arrived one day before my RR expired. As I went through the short line at immigration I asked the officer what would have happened if I’d arrived 2 days later. He explained that the airline would have “made arrangements” through Auckland for my visa to be taken care of. With a smile, “We wouldn’t leave you stranded!” So why, I ask, am I doing all this? Why did I leave the best of Utah summer, my newly planted herbs, my sweetie, my children, my deck in need of painting and my dog’s ear infection?

That Monday (June 29th) I staggered through jet lag to the Dunedin immigration office to submit the application that I had carefully completed on the other hemisphere the week before. Everything was in an orderly folder. I was ready for anything. But what happened was nothing. The Maori-looking woman behind the desk took my application, my supporting documents, our passports and my check, saying, “Come back tomorrow.”

How easy could this be? I chortled to myself as I walked back to the office. No probing questions, no detailed scrutiny, just “come back tomorrow.” Fine. I passed an easy night and came back the next morning. “The woman,” as I thought of her for a long time after, said to me, “You are not eligible for an indefinite extension so I have awarded you a year’s extension.” “OK” I squeaked, figuring they had decided that my commitment to NZ was not so enduring after all. When she returned with the passports two German tourists were waiting impatiently behind me to discuss their visitor’s visas.

They would have to wait. My family’s fate depended entirely on mine so I had to ask why I was ineligible. I had to understand. I figured in those hours of careful study I had missed something. In my heart of hearts I didn’t think I could earn the coveted “indefinite” status just by paying my taxes for two years. I figured immigration was on to me. But no. That wasn’t the problem. The woman pointed to the treasured IRD form that confirmed my tax resident status. In a small box in the left-hand corner was the date my status began: July 2, 2007. I had submitted my application on June 29 — three days before I’d been a tax resident for two years. Ouch. Tears pressing, I asked, “Could I apply on July 3rd? I’ll be eligible then.” “No,” she explained, “You have to wait until the year extension we just issued expires.” She kept my folder and gave me the passports.

I swore at myself, at bureaucracy, and at “the woman” on my walk back up George Street. People must have wondered, because I swore out loud. And I cried. I had failed my family and myself. I leaned against the cool steel column of a street light and banged my forehead. What an idiot! I wallowed in insecurity. I decided it didn’t matter, “Oh well, a year’s not so bad.” Then I changed my mind. I would leave this rotten country for good and boy that would show them! No, I would make that woman’s life miserable. I would ruin her!

Calling home from the office, I apologized to my kids, who didn’t really mind; and to Larry, who couldn’t care less. They just wanted me to come back. I tossed and turned for nights. I figured this indigenous woman didn’t like me because I reminded her of the millions of other foreigners who had robbed her people. . I tried not to hate her, but I did wonder why she hated me. Why hadn’t she told me BEFORE processing the application that I was three days too early?

Maybe she had. Maybe the pause before I squeaked out “OK” was my opportunity to stop the process. Maybe if I’d had my brain in gear I would have realized that. I was an idiot. Friends commiserated and offered advice and support. Some agreed that I was an idiot. Some suggested I go to my MP. Some offered to go with me to immigration. Some told me what to do. “Ask for an appeal,” said an American.

I called the “National Immigration Helpline.” I certainly could use some help! A woman named Carolyn looked up my file, put me on hold, then said “There’s no reason you can’t re-apply. You’ll have to get a new IRD form and pay the fee again.” Ah Carolyn! At last I could quit loathing myself and DO something! I emailed “the woman,”

Thank you for your help with this Visa. Would you please advise me regarding appeal procedures? I’ve thought about this, and would like to resubmit my application after July 2, when I will meet conditions for the Indefinite Extension. I appreciate your consideration.
Best regards,
Amanda Barusch
Dept. of Social Work & Community Development
University of Otago

You’ll note the well-calibrated use of gratitude coupled with my awe-inspiring official identity. Surely that would force her to reconsider. Nope. Her reply came back the same day:

As, I had explained to you yesterday at the counter, even if you do meet one of the conditions for an Indefinite Returning Resident’s Visa now, we will still issued you with a 12 months Returning Resident’s Visa as there is no exception to policy for applying early instead of on 30 June 2010 or after when your current RRV expires.

You’ll note that she didn’t answer my question about appeal procedures. Then there’s the awkward syntax…the minor typo. Obviously she was deeply conflicted about this. Was she hiding something? Was I going off the deep end?

Fun as it was, this had to stop. I set out to get a new form confirming my tax resident status, calling the IRD to set up another appointment. But the rules had changed – remember the new National government? Now I had to complete a questionnaire. No, they couldn’t email it to me. No, it couldn’t be downloaded. It had to go through the mail. This would take 5 to 10 days. Ouch! I was scheduled to go back to the states in 10 days. That didn’t give me much leeway. This woman said she’d mail it right away so she gave me an appointment five days hence. I haunted the mailbox at work. Everyone knew I was “waiting on a letter from IRD.” Yes, I was a bit of a drama queen. Five days passed without a thing. I decided to postpone my appointment. I changed my mind. Often. I thought I might just turn up without the questionnaire and pretend I didn’t know…

An hour before my scheduled appointment the questionnaire arrived. I glanced at the ten-page form with parallel columns for resources, income and social ties in New Zealand and “Overseas” and thought, “They’ve got me. This is the end. Clearly, I am NOT a tax resident of New Zealand.” For every item under New Zealand there was at least one for “overseas.” For every club in the Southern hemisphere there was one in the Northern. I had a rented house in New Zealand and a mortgaged house in the U.S. For crying out loud, my family was in the U.S. Gads. I thought about lying. But a) I’m a terrible lawyer, and b) Larry warned me never to lie to the tax man. Mostly I was afraid I’d get caught. So I carefully filled out each column and dashed off to my appointment where a young woman flipped through the pages and declared that it all looked “great.” Despite myself, it seemed that I WAS a tax resident of New Zealand — signed sealed and delivered – twice.

It was time to go back to immigration, but I had my doubts. “The woman” already hated me and with no access to appeal, I couldn’t afford to alienate her further. I had to be sure I was doing things right. So…when in doubt…I called the National Helpline again. Again, a woman explained that I was within my rights. This time I was more direct, “Look, I don’t want to be hostile with the Dunedin branch. What should I do? “ We talked about going to her supervisor. I asked about lodging an appeal. “No,” my new advisor explained, “You should query her.” Another one of those nouns that becomes a verb was the answer to my puzzle. In this context a “query” is essentially an appeal. What a polite way to ask the woman who had our lives in her hands the basis for her decisions!

With this new vocabulary I was able to write a two-page letter to “the woman.” I outlined “the facts,” of our encounter to make it clear that she had never warned me that I was too early. Then I asked her 1) Why my application for an indefinite extension was denied and 2) Why I could not apply again? Her reply came via email the same day. I was denied because I was not eligible, and she would have to ask her manager why I could not apply again. She would get back to me. And somehow I saw a victory here. She didn’t deny the facts! That was tantamount to admitting that she had not warned me. Ah yes, I was making headway

I waited exactly one day for her reply. Then, in a daring stroke, I decided to go to the immigration office I envisioned myself doing a 60’s style sit-in, “I’m going to stay here until you let me re-apply.” Maybe I was desperate. Or maybe I didn’t have much else to do. I did take a book . But I never cracked it. I planted myself at a table and slowly, carefully filled out a new application. While I worked a Kiwi bloke came in with a young Pacific man. The Kiwi was angry when she explained that immigration required a written request for information on the young man’s application for a work permit even though he was standing right there. She carefully explained with complete absence of emotion that he would have to specify his information needs in writing. Huffing and puffing he stomped out of the office, muttering about bureaucracy. I could see both sides. There I was, admiring her cool, calm clarity – identifying with the aggressor – where only minutes before I’d been thinking of her as a four-letter word.

I approached her desk with newfound appreciation, and carefully laid out my application, my new IRD form, our passports and my checkbook. “Hi.” I said. She said “I haven’t spoken to my manager yet.” Now here’s where New Zealand and America differ. If I had been an immigrant to the US of A she would have said, “You’ll have to come back later.” Instead, she said, “I’ll go do that now.” I waited for three of the longest minutes I’ve lived through before she came back and said “OK.” That’s all. Just, “OK.” Writing out my check I tried not to sigh with relief. I worried, “If there’s a problem…?” “I’ll be in touch.” She said. I joked, “You know, I’m not very good at this.” For an instant I know she grinned before she replied, “Come back tomorrow.”

I didn’t sleep much that night. Surely something would go wrong. I had left a date blank because I wasn’t sure when my first resident’s visa was issued and I didn’t want to get it wrong. That would wreck the whole, carefully-negotiated deal. The next morning was a busy one at the immigration office, but I felt like I owned the place. I waited for the man who wanted to know how to sponsor his family to come over from Turkey. I waited for the student who wasn’t at University because he’d come upon hard times. Then I nearly sauntered up to the counter. Erihapeti reached into her drawer and handed me our passports. “See you later!” I said, as I strolled out of the office.

The rest, as they say, is history. I write now as a “permanent resident of New Zealand with indefinite right of return.” Has a nice ring, eh?

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