Saturday, November 29, 2014

Our Journey to Permanent Residency - The Final Chapter

As many our readers know, we have been on a quest to be granted Permanent Residency (PR) status.  This is the final chapter documenting our journey, which got underway in June 2013, after living here for 12 months. I apologize now for the length of the post, but considering the length of our journey, hopefully you all will bear with me.

After gathering the required paperwork, making trips to Belmopan, having an interview with the Special Branch department of the police, waiting for Special Branch to run an Interpol check, we thought we were in good shape for getting approved. That was around early August of last year.

Then everything came to a screeching halt dueto  a scandal in the Immigration department. Passports had been sold, accusations were levied, and the entire office in Belmopan shut down. We, and all those other folks who were on the brink of approval, were now in limbo.

After repeated phone calls to the Belmopan office, we were finally told that until a massive reorganization of the department was complete, no applications would be processed. Things would probably start moving again in January of this year.

There wasn’t much we could do during this time but wait, continue making the monthly trip to the local Immigration office for our tourist stamps, and pay the associated $200 BZD fee.

Around mid-January, we started calling the Belmopan office on a weekly basis. Every time we managed to get through, the message was always the same. “Your file is on the Director’s desk.” We later came to find out this really meant our file was in the general vicinity of the Director’s office, not literally on her desk.

More months passed with no progress. We spoke with a friend of ours who works in Belmopan, and she offered to stop by the Immigration office from time to time to keep tabs on our application.

Finally around mid-September, we received notification that our file was very close to being literally put on the Director’s desk for review. There were just a few things we needed to provide to take things to the next step.

Among the items we were requested to bring were copies of some of the monthly stamps. Bear in mind that during all this time, we would make copies on our own, take them to the Corozal office, and request they be sent to Belmopan.

We also needed to get another original statement from our bank here, along with original documents showing David’s Social Security and pension payments. 
We gathered these and a few other documents together, put them in our document folder (which by this time was a good 2 inches thick), and set off for Belmopan.

Our appointment with Ms. Gollub started promptly at 9 a.m. While David had spoken to her on a number of occasions over the phone, this was the first time we met her face-to-face. It was also the first time we were allowed behind the glass partition and into the office area itself. And boy, was the office area an eye-opener. There were stacks and stacks of files piled on desks, in big cardboard boxes, and on the floor. The front and back covers of each file were held together with a piece of string. However all the paperwork inside each file was loose. It became very easy to understand how paperwork (like copies of monthly stamps) could mistakenly be put in the wrong folder.

Ms. Gollub is an incredibly nice, soft spoken lady. We started going down the list of documents we had been asked to bring. She carefully examined each item before placing it in our folder. At least we thought it was our folder, until she started asking a question or two that had nothing to do with our application. It turns out that the folder she had didn’t belong to us. Ours was literally on the Director’s desk. The Director was in a meeting and did not want to be disturbed. Knowing that we had made the 2 ½ hour drive from Corozal, Ms. Gollub promised to get our folder as soon as it was possible, double-check every item, and would call us after lunch should we need to provide more information.

Good as her word, we got her call shortly after lunch. She said all was in order, and we didn’t need to return to her office that day. She also said that it would probably be at least a couple of weeks before the Director would determine if our application should be approved.

We returned home exhausted from the drive, but happy that we were at least a step closer to getting our final stamps. But knowing how long and drawn out the process had been up to that point, we weren’t overly optimistic that we would hear anything about our stamp status any time soon.

A couple of weeks later, David was out in the shop and I was changing the sheets on our bed. I heard the cell phone, which was out on the porch, start to ring. I scurried out to answer it, but missed the call. Looking at the log, I saw the call was made from Immigration. My heart momentarily stopped. A voice mail had been left. A woman’s voice said she was calling on behalf of Ms. Gollub and wanted to let us know that our application had been approved and we could visit the Belmopan office at your convenience to get our stamps! At that moment, it felt like this huge weight, which I didn’t fully realize I had been carrying, was lifted. After all these months, we were finally official. Well almost.

Before setting off to Belmopan, we gathered the final bits we knew the Immigration officials would want to see. For starters, we needed a notarized Security Bond. In essence, it states that a Belize citizen (we used Fernando) will provide sufficient funds (which we would provide for him) to purchase return tickets to our respective home countries should circumstances warrant us being deported.  As our PR applications ended up being combined into one file, we presumed one Security Bond for the two of us would suffice. In addition to the Bond, we also had to bring Fernando’s passport, plus a copy of the picture page and front cover. Last, but certainly not least, we got together the final payment monies -- $2000 BZD for me and $1500 BZD for David (his is less because of being a Brit and Belize being part of the English Commonwealth).

Armed with all of these things, plus our trusty document folder (just in case some last minute stuff was requested), we got on the road.

Being a Monday when we made the drive, it wasn’t too surprising to see a long line trailing out of the Immigration office. Most folks were there to get their monthly tourist stamps, while others were waiting for the Belize passports. Those of us there for residency purposes were asked to form a separate line. After an almost two hour wait, we were admitted to the office area.

A young lady had the chair for dealing with residency. It became quickly apparent that she was a trainee and ours was probably the first application she had dealt with, especially the protocols involved to get a final stamp. When she attempted to hand us blank Security Bond forms, I whipped the one we already had filled out and notarized. After giving it a look and talking with her co-worker, she said we needed a separate Bond for each of us – even though all of our application info had been consolidated into one file. Fortunately, we had a second form, already notarized and with Fernando’s signature.

After more consultation with her co-worker, we finally got to the step where we needed to pay our final fees. When the young lady wrote our receipts so we could go pay the cashier, I noticed that they were charging David $2000. When I questioned the amount, there was more consultation with co-workers. After much rustling of paper, it was announced that David’s fee should actually be $3000 BZD.  I then questioned why his would be higher than mine, especially since Belize is a Commonwealth of the United Kingdom.

More confabs ensued, with comments being made that a consultation with some higher-ups may be required, and we may have to come back some other day for this step. That wasn’t going to happen. David stepped outside and called the Immigration hot-line. The woman he made contact with said she should have an answer in about 10 minutes and would call him back. Meanwhile back in the office there were more conversations and shuffling of paper. Finally, a decision was made that David need only pay the $1500. By the way, we never did receive a return call from the hotline.

With receipts in hand, we went to the cashier to pay and get another set of receipts. Those we toted back to the Immigration officer. Now at this point, one might think that we would hand over our passports, stamps would be applied, and we could be on our merry way. And back in the day (pre-scandal) that was pretty much what happened. But now things are different. You do hand over your passports, but are told it can take at least six weeks for the PR stamps to be affixed. We were aware of this, but it’s a bit disconcerting to hand over the official document and leave empty-handed. Yes, we had the receipts showing we paid for our PR stamps, but it’s not the same as having your passport.

We let the situation ride for about a week, then gave the Belmopan office a call. Our stamps still hadn’t been issued. However, by the end of that second week, we got the glorious call that the stamps were done and we could pick up our passports. We were fortunate that our friend who works in Belmopan could sign for and take possession of our documents. Our passports were back in our hot, little hands by that weekend.

So now we are really and truly official Permanent Residents. This means no more trips to the local Immigration office for 30-day tourist stamps, paying $200 BZD every month, no exit fees should we want to cross the border to Mexico, and should we take a trip outside of the country, we can come back through the residents line for Customs upon our return (usually much shorter than the one for visitors).

It's been a long journey, but as an old Taoist saying goes, "The journey is the reward."

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