Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where are your papers?

When you enter the United States on a visa, you have to fill out an I94 form on the plane. At immigration the officer tears off a portion, adds an exit date and staples it into your passport. Getting a visa is a long-winded process, and yet the visa only sets the maximum possible date for the immigration officer's decision. He or she can choose when you must leave and it can be any time up to the end of your visa, including (if they don't like you) that very day.

Before we first entered the US on my work visa, I was given a large bundle of forms and letters from my employer. These detail at some length how important I am to my employer and why I'm no threat to the US. When we first presented ourselves at immigration, the officer looked through them, asked some questions and finally gave leave to stay in the country for three years. And that was that.

Last week I had to fly to the UK for a week. After checking in at JFK, I noticed that my I94 form was missing from my passport. Disaster! I spoke to the US embassy and they told me it is normal for the person at the check-in desk to remove it as I'm terminating my stay. (I'm not altogether reassured by the people on the phone at the US embassy, as they all have Scottish accents. I want to get my definitive advice from someone who speaks like George Clooney, not Ewan McGregor.)

So I was outside the US, going back in five days and I had no papers to demonstrate my reason for a three-year stay. I rang my wife and asked her to courier all the papers to my UK hotel, so I would have them upon entry. She went to the local DHL desk at Office Max, but they didn't do overseas shipping, so they sent her to another location, which she couldn't find, but found a Fed-Ex instead, but they couldn't send the papers faster than three days. However, the nice Fed-Ex lady let my wife use her phone to talk to DHL who said if she went home someone would come out and pick it up by 2pm. She went home and after three phone calls, the courier arrived at 7.30pm. The courier didn't understand the English address, so my wife had to fill it in for him. A bit of a palaver, but in the end and with the application of a sixty dollars she got the paperwork sent off to my hotel, where it arrived a couple of days later.

When I got to the immigration desk, the officer looked at my visa and said, "This isn't the first time you've entered under this visa?" I replied, "No, I first came in January. Would you like to see my supporting paperwork?" "That won't be necessary," he said, and gave me leave to stay for three years.

I didn't tell my wife.

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