Saturday, June 15, 2013

Our Journey to Permanent Residency - Part Two: Chasing Paper

While things seemed to come to a screeching halt for obtaining the forms needed to apply for Permanent Residency, we started hearing and reading about other folks who were encountering similar problems with the Corozal Immigration office. And while it was comforting to know we weren’t the only ones having issues, the question still remained on how everyone could get correct and consistent information.

In a series of emails and conversations with fellow expats, any of us having problems were directed to send our experiences to the Director of Immigration. A number of us sent her emails, but it initially seemed that no action was being taken.

But then came the first whiff that change was in the air when we had to go back to get our stamp from Immigration this month. We were told in May that we would have to wait until we were living here for at least 14 months before we might be given the application packet. We had also heard that we should be prepared to hear that we must apply for a work permit, even though we have no intention of employment.

In the meantime, a couple we know needed to make a trip to the main office of Immigration in Belmopan, and offered to pick up the forms we needed. With those in hand, we knew we wouldn't need to cope with the guy at the Immigration office on that front.

So when it was time to go and get our monthly stamp, we decided that our best course of action was to be polite and agree to whatever Mr. Big Fish in a Small Pond had to say at Immigration. When he looked through our passports, he said that since we’ve lived here a year, we should apply for the QRP program. We explained that we had already paid duty on all of our belongings when we moved here, and been living here a year already, so it really wasn't the program we were interested in. The officer then said that we should apply for permanent residency. We resisted the urge to bang our heads on the counter.

We asked if he would be able to give us the forms (even though we had them, we were curious to see what his response would be). His answer: Yes, he could give us the forms. He found the application and medical forms, which he promptly handed over. I asked if there was some sort of checklist for whatever other documents we may need. He initially said there wasn’t and that it was all spelled out in the application. But right after that, he dug one out and handed it over. I then asked, because I couldn’t resist, if he could check off which items applied to us. He couldn’t. On the high side, we at least made some forward progress. However he was adamant that the next time we came in for a stamp, we needed to show that our application packet had been accepted and be able to provide the confirmation number.

With the basic application packet in hand, we could move ahead tracking down the other forms, get copies made, and have everything notarized.

We started with the Application itself. With Belize being very much a male-dominated society, it was no surprise that it is assumed the man is applying for residence, with the woman being a dependent. The information needed to complete the form is relatively straightforward. For instance, supplying your address, nationality, marital status, DOB, names of dependents (if any), work history, etc.  There is a spot where you are requested to insert a dollar amount of held capital. Per solid advice from friends, we entered the amount of our property and car here in Belize. We were also advised to fill out a form for each of us.

Our Land Certificates (sorta’ like Deeds) were our evidence that we acquired land in Belize. We also had our birth and marriage certificates.

The only other items left to track down were getting our local bank and income tax statements, having a doctor complete our Certificates of Health, including the blood tests for HIV/VDRL, and getting the Sworn Declaration of Support form.

So bright and early one morning, we headed into town. Our first stop was the Income Tax office. The purpose of this form is to let Immigration know we receive no taxable income from running a business in Belize or that kind of thing. The gentleman at the desk couldn’t have been more pleasant or helpful. In no time at all, he had the form completed, stamped, signed, and in our hands. Cost: $0.

From there, we went to Atlantic Bank where we have a checking account. Now as a point of reference, when government forms state they want a “bank statement,” it’s not what you may think. What it means is a letter from your bank that essentially says that you’re a customer in good standing, maintain an account or accounts at that financial institution, and either an average or specific amount of those account balances.

The customer service rep at the bank knew exactly what we needed and promised to have it ready by 8:00 am the following day, which is exactly what happened. Cost: $0

Then we were off to get passport photos. There’s a little shop here in town called Dave’s Photos. The owner, whose name is -- you guessed it -- Dave, is awesome. We walked in and were immediately taken behind the partition to have our pics taken.

Do yourself a favor and make sure your shoulders are covered. I was wearing a tank top, because it was beastly hot and humid. Dave’s assistant (who I think may be his son) went in the back room and came out with a T-shirt for me to put on over my tank top. Granted, it was a bit small, but what customer service! As Dave has a digital set-up, in no time flat we had multiple, color photos. And do make sure you get at least three copies of your photos, because you’ll need those extras for when you request your police record and if they get misplaced during the approval process. Cost: less than $20 BZD /  $10 USD for 16 color photos.

The other great thing about Dave is that he can also make photocopies and is a Justice of the Peace. They act as notaries and, believe or not, are not allowed to charge for their JP services. But we still had a few things to do before we were ready for this piece of the process.

Off we went to see Dr. David Reyes located just a couple of blocks away. We walked in thinking we would be making an appointment for later in the week. So we were really surprised when he popped out of his office and, as there were no other patients, were told he could do our exams and blood work on the spot.

We had heard that some doctors will just fill out the medical form without doing an exam, basically taking your word that you’re in good health. Dr. Reyes, however, gave each of us a fairly thorough going over. As far as our blood work, instead of having to draw a vial of blood and have it processed by a lab, he took a couple of drops from each of our fingers and popped it into small test kits to check for HIV and venereal diseases. In a matter of seconds, the blood work was complete. Cost: $214.00 BZD / $107.00 USD for both exams and blood work.

In the space of just a few hours, we had the majority of our paperwork. If someone had told me that was possible, I would have laughed myself silly. All that was left was obtaining our police record and tracking down the Sworn Declaration of Support.

Now if you go to a local police station, it can take about three months before the report is complete. However, if you go to the Police Headquarters in Belmopan, they can turn it around in a single day. Don’t ask me how or why, it’s just the way it is. We figured we would wait until we went to Belmopan the following Tuesday and get the report then.

That just left the pesky Sworn Declaration of Support. No one seemed to know what we were talking about. While we were told we could get the form in Belmopan, David decided to run the gauntlet at the Immigration office to see if our favorite officer could be of any help.

He walked in fully expecting to come out empty handed. But lo and behold, there on the counter were forms for the taking, including everything to do with residency. And behind the counter, two new people. The woman couldn’t have been more helpful. When David inquired about the form we were looking for, she guided him right to it. He came home in a state of shock.

But then it was my turn to be shocked when I read the form. Remember when I mentioned that Belize is a very male dominated society? Well brace yourself. Here is what the Sworn Declaration of Support form is all about (the following quoted text is verbatim from the form):

The husband/common-law husband/father/brother or whatever other role a guy might have with a wife/common-law wife/mother/sister/fill-in-the-blank female has to “solemnly and sincerely declare that they have known the female/dependent for X number of years. She is (fill in the blank) Nationality having been born at (fill in the blank location) on the (fill in the blank date). I have been living with (fill in female/dependent name) for over X years. She is my (fill in the blank relationship, i.e. “wife”). It is my wish to support her application for Permanent Residence. I hold myself fully responsible for her financial support during her Residence in Belize. I earn an income $ (fill the blank amount) monthly.”

See what I mean? Some of us, only half-jokingly, have come to call this the “Chattel Form.” I mean, really, in this day and age only a man can provide an income? What about women of independent means? What if they want to live here and can easily provide for themselves? Would they still have to have a man vouch for them? Aaaarrrgghhh! I'll step off the soapbox now.

Now that everything, except the police report, was in our hot little hands, we could take the next step of having copies made and having everything notarized. But just to be on the safe side, a good friend of ours offered to have our packet looked at by people in the know to ensure everything was in order. Turns out we were in good shape – all the pieces and parts were in order.

As far as copies go, I wanted to err on the side of having too many than not enough. Yes, more trees had to be sacrificed, but after hearing stories of misplaced paperwork, it was worth the extra paper and cost. We opted to have three copies made of everything except our photos, which we already had plenty of copies.

A lesson we learned is that if you are a couple, do not have both your passports copied on a single sheet, then cut apart. While you may save a few bucks initially, you will end up having to copy them individually on a full-size sheet of paper. Apparently, Immigration wants that extra space to use for whatever stamps they need to put on the document copies. Oh, also remember to copy the front and back cover of your passport, along with any blank pages.

While we had used a company here in town to make our passport copies, we ended up going back to Dave’s Photos to have everything else done and to have him notarize every single sheet. I don’t know how he did it and not have hand cramps from all those signatures, but everything was done the same day.

Now all that was left to do was to make arrangements for a road trip to the Immigration office in Belmopan to submit our packet.

Part Three of our journey is coming up!

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