Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jumping Through Hoops - An Immigration Story

"How can I help you?"

The man appeared behind the window labeled "Vehicle Export" as I glanced up from sorting through the papers in my hand. I'd been waiting for fifteen minutes at the empty opening, glaring impatiently at the large hand-written sign taped to the shutters: "Do NOT Knock." I didn't dare knock, not in the offices of the U.S. border patrol. This was one of those "do not mess around" zones, where every agent eyed you with suspicion until you felt like you should turn yourself in for...for what? Nothing. The atmosphere simply fostered a terrifying sense of guilt. A guard had walked his large German shepherd right by me only moments before, telling the man in line behind me to back against the wall, a "big man with a big dog" was coming through. I now looked at the man who would decide my fate.

"Um, well. I need to export my car from the United States into Canada."


"Joel Mayward. I sent my paperwork via email, it should be here."

"You have a title for the car?"

"Yes." I handed him a faxed copy of the electronic title that the bank had given me. Since I was exporting a vehicle with a car loan, I had to contact the bank to get the title for the car. The bank had directed me to the Arizona Motor Vehicles Department. The MVD had directed me back to the bank, who had faxed me a copy of the electronic title, stating "that should be what they're looking for."

"This isn't a title," the agent said.

"Well...." I stammered, starting to sweat. My family was waiting in the car for me, and the export office closed for the weekend in less than two hours. I didn't want any trouble.

"This is a title," he stated matter-of-factly, pointing to the various examples of titles taped to the wall under the "Do NOT Knock" sign. Thus began my stuttering explanation--that I had contacted the bank, then contacted the MVD, then contacted the bank again, who had given me this title and sent me on my way. He only shook his head.

"You'll need a letter from the bank giving you permission to take the car out of the country. If you attempt to take the car over the border now, it's illegal, and you'll be fined and the vehicle impounded. You can email me the letter at the government email address at the top of your paperwork. Everything else is here, and you're good to go. Just get me that letter."

With that statement, I found myself caught up in the perfect storm of bureaucracy. From immigration offices to MVD agents to the upper rankings of the car loan department at the bank to my insurance company, everyone required me to fill out forms, write letters, contact relatives, give addresses and fax numbers. Every time I shared my situation on the phone with another representative of an organization--"Hello. I am an American currently living in Canada trying to export my vehicle from the United States to my new home in British Columbia. Can you help me?"--I was directed to someone else. No one seemed to comprehend my situation, nor could they offer me much in the way of help or feedback. I left my car in a church parking lot about a mile away from the border offices, hoping that it would not get towed, defaced, or stolen.

Just tell me your PIN number, fill out this form, fax in this information, spin around three times and say "abracadabra," and the letter you've requested will be mailed to you within 7 business days.

After nearly two weeks in this bureaucratic maelstrom, I was nervously waiting by a fax machine in Ravensdale, WA, where I had just finished teaching a Bible class on the Sermon on the Mount. "Do not be anxious about your life," Jesus commands. Clearly he had never immigrated to another country before. (Oh, wait.) I needed that letter at 11:30 AM so I could begin the drive north towards the border. The clock read 11:41. Just then, the fax machine began to hum and dial, then print. Two pieces of paper rolled out, and I grabbed them in one motion as I picked up my bag and hurried out the door to my waiting family. We had the letter.

The vehicle export offices close at 3:30 PM every weekday. On this Friday, we rolled into the truck parking lot of the border crossing around 3:05, grabbed all the necessary paperwork, picked up both our children, and made a mad dash across the throughway where passport-laden travelers were driving their cars. (This dangerous scramble across all lanes of traffic is not only necessary, these were the specific instructions given to us by the government website.) We hurried up to the open window, made sure that we did NOT knock, and waited for an agent to notice our panting family at the opening.

"How can I help you?" This time, the agent was a woman, pregnant and nearly at the end of her shift for the weekend. I gave her the 15-second explanation of our situation and thrust the faxed letter from the bank into her hand. She glanced at it, and walked back to find our paperwork. We waited nervously at the window. From somewhere in the U.S. border offices, we heard her mutter, "they did this wrong."

My wife and I both glanced at each other in horror. They did this wrong. Four words that might mean we leave the car in that parking lot. Four words that meant more bureaucracy, more phone calls, more anxiety. The agent came back to the window and explained that we need to have an original copy of the letter from the bank, not just a faxed copy. I explained to her that the agent I had previously spoken with had assured me that if I had only emailed him the letter, he could let the vehicle pass. She sighed and shook her head. "You want to handle this?" she said to an unseen colleague.

The agent I had seen--the one who told me about this letter--appeared at the window.

"Do you remember me?" I exclaimed, somehow elated to see a familiar face in this stress-causing environment.

"How could I forget?" he replied, a dry smile on his face. I showed him the faxed letter and explained our entire frustrating story. He looked at the letter, looked at me, looked at my wife, looked at the two children in our arms, looked at the clock (it read 3:15 PM), then looked back at the letter. "Give me a minute," he said.

We heard a peculiar muffled thud from behind the office wall. The agent stepped around the corner, handed us the faxed letter with a U.S. government notary embossment across the bottom, took out a stamp, and pounded it firmly onto the letter, letting the ink set firmly.

"Go on. Get out of here," he said with a brief smile as he turned and walked away.

I feel like one of the greatest lessons I learned from the American public school system was the ability to jump through hoops. Many, if not all hoops are those meaningless, pointless, useless tasks and assignments that don't seem to get anyone anywhere. Most homework is like this. If you refuse to do your homework--regardless if you learn anything or not, regardless of the homework's relevance, regardless if the teacher even cares--you will fail the class.

You can whine and complain and argue that the hoops shouldn't exist, but you won't get to where you want to go until you simply jump through them. It's the discipline of doing what you don't want to do in order to do what God has called you to doGordon MacKenzie gives a memorable name to navigating the bureaucracy: orbiting the giant hairball. You can get sucked into the maelstrom, or run away from it in the name of "innovation," but the hairball--the hoops--will remain.

I'm not a hoop advocate. I try to discourage or dismantle or disregard as many hoops as I can. But when one encounters an impossible hoop that one must jump through to get to where God needs you to go, well...I say jump. Trust God as your guide as He leads you to better paths and sets your feet on the heights.

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