April 12, 2010

In January of this year, after returning back to Baltimore from Christmas break in Nebraska I was searching through my wallet for my driver’s license (my first choice in terms of “photo identification”). While I was digging through my wallet and travel pack I suddenly realized that my license was nowhere to be found! Now, I will admit to you that this is a semi-normal, perhaps even bi-weekly occurrence that I have become fairly accustomed to, losing things that is. You name it, I lose it: driver’s license, cell phone, car keys, house keys, etc…

As I got home for the day and began tearing apart my room in search of my license, I was soon disappointed that I couldn’t find it anywhere. As days passed I continued searching every pocket, backpack, purse, and drawer in my life. Eventually I came to terms with the fact that my driver’s license would be gone forever until I could figure out how to get a new one. This posed a problem, per-usual, as confusion is always caused when inquiry of my “permanent address” or “hometown” is found on any important document. You see, I grew up and attended college in Washington State, but two years ago my parents moved to Nebraska. Now I am in Baltimore, MD for the year, planning to return to Seattle, Washington or Berkeley, California, but still dependent on parents living in Nebraska. No family ties in Washington, no personal ties (besides my beautiful parents) to the state of Nebraska, and a strictly one-year window of time to live in Baltimore City. Where should my new drivers license come from?!

As I called my mom to discuss the retrieval of a new license, she began asking me about my documents: did I have a copy of my birth certificate? No. How about my social security card? Nope. My soul piece of identification had become my passport. This caused another small dilemma, as we soon discovered the reality that  most frequently in this country you need documents to get documents. We decided that I would make an attempt to get my Nebraska license renewed from a remote location. So, I began to research.

With assistance from my parents I found the appropriate paper work, filled it out, and sent it in. Two weeks later I received a package from the Nebraska Department of Licensing. As I excitedly opened the envelope, hoping for the license-getting-process to be quick, easy, and over, I became quickly dismayed as I looked to see that my form had been sent back. Apparently there had been errors on it.

Thus began the long and lengthy process of my mother requesting copies of my birth certificate so she could get me a temporary driver’s license sent to her home in Nebraska, to then be forwarded onto me in Baltimore.

Three months later I finally had a new driver’s license. Following the license came a copy of my birth certificate as well as my social security card.

As an American-born english speaker this process was frustrating, tiring, and confusing. As I went through the process of obtaining my documents I kept thinking and wondering about what this must be like for a newcomer to the United States, to be unfamiliar with the culture, customs, and language. For housing, work, and safety to depend upon having these strange documents that seem so unobtainable.

This anecdote is a very small piece of the frustration and anxiety so many refugee, immigrant, and asylum-seeking people have trying to navigate an overly confusing and difficult system of paperwork and protocol, frequently in an unknown language. Without the help, support, and assistance from my family members, I probably would still not have these identifying documents. In my case, it took about three months to obtain all of my paperwork. Many do not have three months to wait and consistently the process will take much longer.

As I think about welcome in the United States I consider acts as simple as helping others to obtain the correct paper work, or translating paper work so that things make a little more sense. There are many simple things that we can do to for others to make lengthy and exhausting processes seem a little less difficult.

Click here for some ideas from LIRS.

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