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Thursday, September 28, 2006

My Life As An Illegal Alien

I’ve been keeping a secret from you for the past two months.

This secret has forced me to live on the “down low” (not in the sexual sense, thank you).

I’ve avoided situations where I could be stopped by the police or where ID would be required.

I haven’t been able to claim all the services and privileges I might have the right to.

I’ve been doing illegal things – like working under the table. I’ve been skittish at work, worrying that we might be raided by immigration.

I’ve been living on the run. Working illegally. Risking jail and deportation.

It sucks. But I’ve been in search of a better life here in Tanzania – and so it was worth it.

It is not like this is the first time I’ve done something illegal in my life. Although most of you might consider me a “good girl” I’ve had my share of illegal risk taking. Just last week I made an illegal U-Turn in the center of the town where I grew up. And I’ve paid a babysitter or two without paying towards their social security. Scary.

But seriously, I’ve smoked more than my share of weed both in the US and in Jamaica (especially in Jamaica :), performed “acts” illegal in 30 states and most countries of the world, and even (in my youth) written a few checks that I thought just might bounce – maybe.

I didn’t intend to be working here without a permit. I did everything I thought I needed to do.

I sought the visa that gave me 6 months on business – but the Immigration officials only gave me 10 days! (A scam to make you come back to Immigration and pay more money to extend your visa – I think.)

I had my visa extended twice.

But at the second extension, the Immigration official made a mistake. Instead of giving me another month, he gave me a month and a year, unintentionally writing June 28, 2007 instead of 2006.

I didn’t realize the mistake until the end of June when I went to get my visa extended again and someone pointed out that my visa was still good.

I knew it probably wasn’t. But someone in my office said it was. I let them “win”. I guess I was tired of going to Immigration.

I continued as usual, thinking that my official work permit would come through before I needed another visa (work permit trumps visa). But it didn’t.

And then in late August I had a panic. I realized that Jaden and Rowan’s tourist visas were about to expire. A colleague took our passports back to Immigration to get those extended and the person who looked at my passport realized the mistake right away.

He invalidated my visa.

He crossed out June 28, 2007 and wrote June 28, 2006. This happened on August 30, 2006. He didn’t date it or sign it. It was a Friday afternoon.

I was now in Tanzania illegally. So were the kids.

And so when my colleague returned to Immigration on Monday, the official wanted to know why I was in the country illegally. He wanted to know if I was working, because if I was I shouldn’t be. I could be deported.

And so began 18 days of uncertainty. Working on the lamb.

Multiple people told us they could fix my situation for a “fee” - an under-the-table fee. They could take our passports to the Kenyan border and have their friend backdate a new entry stamp. Or their cousin had a cousin on their other side whose best friend’s sister is a senior person at Immigration and could fix everything. It wasn’t very expensive. Most offers came in at around $600. But of course it wouldn’t be a reimbursable expense.

Finally, my colleagues hired a lawyer. I don’t know how they did it, but after almost three weeks of ducking and paranoia, they got us visas for another month. Just in the nick of time… because we were about to leave for the US and I wasn’t so into being arrested with the kids at the airport because we had overstayed our visas.

And I really wanted to get back in after my vacation. After all… all my stuff, by life accumulation, has been here at the Port of Dar es Salaam in shipping containers for 3 months, awaiting the awarding of my work permit. I am trying to start a new life. Save some money. Take care of my family.

And lo and behold… when I arrived back in the country two days ago, I was met by an Immigration official who had in her possession my work permit. (Why the work permit took so long is a whole other debacle – perhaps one to be left undocumented – rather than to bore you again with my complaining.)

On Tuesday night at the airport I was ecstatic. I was legal.

I have permission to work for two years. Thank you Tanzania.

Let my new life officially begin!


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