05 October 2011

Week 60: TDY to Rio: Along Copacobana Beach

After work the second day, I decided to walk back to my hotel on Copacobana Beach from the Consulate. The cab took about ten minutes, and I noticed a very nice walking and biking trail, so I figured I could probably make it in about an hour on foot.

Just up the road from the Consulate, I saw a group of demonstrators outside of a bank. The public bank employees had started a national strike and were protesting outside of a private bank office. All the banks closed for about four weeks due to the strike.

After observing the demonstration for a few minutes, I continued on my walk, crossing over bridge over the highway. The Museum of Modern Art was just on the other side and a giant spider sculpture.

My walk also took me past the WWII Memorial and several very cool trees and plants.

I was very impressed by the beauty and cleanliness of the beaches I walked past. Along the way I noticed these large lids covering very large garbage cans, so I stopped and took some photos.

After I took a couple of photos of these large garbage containers embedded in the beach, one of the garbage collectors stopped to ask me why I was taking pictures of the cans. He thought maybe I had seen something wrong, or was doing report of some sort. I assured him that I found the cans interesting since I had never seen that kind of disposal unit before. He told me that his boss had seen them in France and brought them here. He also showed me how they work. Very big and deep cans. Truck removes the liner.

I saw several groups of children playing soccer, groups of men playing volleyball, and even some foot volley. That is amazing. There was even a large crew shooting a scene for a film or television show.

I did manage to walk back to hotel this afternoon at least partway. I followed the trail through the park and got to the Porcão churrascaria at the end of the park. I had brought my camera to take pictures. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast so the light wasn't as good as yesterday evening.

After about an hour of walking, it got dark and the trail ended, so I got a cab to bring me to the Copacobana each. Even after my walk, the cab ride still cost me R$20.

Tonight I got several photos of some of things I thought were interesting, like garbage cans and restrooms.

I had two more interesting conversations with street vendors later. I was looking for souvenirs to bring home. I bought batik shawls for the girls (made in Indonesia with Brazilian designs). I purchased those from two different vendors. The second guy had a shawl of the same pattern but better quality of s shawl I had purchased earlier. He did a straight trade with me for the better one.

I tried to find a T-shirt for Sam, but there was nothing his size. I stopped and talked to one T-shirt vendor and explained how the shirts they offered were mostly for woman because that is what sells. He then explained the sizing codes. Tank tops are one size because they stretch. Young girls wear them loose while their moms wear them skin tight.

As his grandkids packed up their wares, he got off on a tangent and explained to me why Muslims were ruining the world, Arab countries should be realigned, and oil reserves should be put in the control of Western nations. He only agreed with President Obama on th issue of not forming a separate Palestinian state. He repeated everything several times to make sur I understood his argument, and I think I got most of it. I even learned some swear words from him.

My last stop was with an artisan named Paulo from Pernambuco and his friend Tati from Rio. They both live on the street. He makes hats and bowls out of palm fronds. She paints idyllic scenes on white ceramic tiles while you watch. I just wanted one of his birds, and Paulo insisted that I watch Tati paint a tile. She was good, but I didn't want a tile. During this time we talked about music, culture and religion, and Tati and I helped Paulo learn a couple of English words for selling his goods. It was a fun evening. I net some nice folks.

The corn on the cob was tough and dry. Old corn. Feed corn. yuck.

Seeing them at the breakfat buffet reminded me of what the T-shirt had told me last night about American arrogance. He said Americans strut up to vendors and ask in English " How much is it" and he says "Quanto custo?" I think he was pleased or impressed to hear me speaking Portuguese.

Week 60: TDY to Rio: U.S. Citizen Services

My other objective in visiting Rio was visit with the U.S. Citizen Services unit, also known as ACS (American Citizen Services). I have been serving as the ACS officer in Brasília for about four months. Rio has a high number of U.S. citizens passing through as tourists or living in that area, so they see more cases and wider range of ACS sevices than we generally get in Brasília.

Most often, the ACS services we do are routine: renewing or replacing passports, registering the births of children born to U.S. citizens abroad, registering deaths, and notary services. We also respond to emergencies like hospitalizations, contacting relatives, and responding to disasters. The most common emergency is a lost or stolen passport. As a comparison, Rio averages about one emergency passport per day, while Brasília does one every couple of weeks. Consular officers can also approve repatriation loans to help destitute Americans return to the United States and assist with the distribution of Social Security benefits to retirees. Consular officers also visit jails and prisons to check on incarcerated Americans. Not all of these types of cases were seen this week, but there were two types of services that I had not yet done.

One was a case of a man wanting to renounce his citizenship. Renunciation of citizenship is a serious matter, especially if giving up U.S. citizenship would leave a person stateless or without a country of citizenship. In this case, the man said that his US citizenship was preventing him from opening a foreign currency exchange account in a Swiss bank, that recent changes in US banking laws made it impossible for him to do business, and that he was against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also complained about having to pay a significant fee to renounce citizenship.

Renouncing citizenship in this way is a two step process. At the consulate, the client states his reasons for abandiming citizenship during an intitial interview, and then returns at a later date after some reflection on his choice with the filled out paperwork and formally renounces citizenship in ceremony involving an oath. The paperwork is then sent to Washington, D.C., for review and a final decision at the State Department.

In this case, it became clear that he was prepared to argue his point and took a defensive stance. In the end, it's his choice as long as seems to be of a sound mind. (My colleagues told me about a regular visitor they get who wants to give up his citizenship so that the government would turn the chip off that was embedded in his head.) I also talked to him about how his choice would effect his children. I actually don't understand why someone would want to give their citizenship, especially after I have met with so many people who have made so many sacrifies in order to get American citizenship for themselves and their children.

On another day after a lunch, I went with the ACS officer and one of consular clerks to do a welfare and whereabouts visit for a child who had been taken by her mom from the U.S. without the dad's permission. They had not seen him since 2008, and this was the first meeting with a consular officer.

International abductions are complicated and emotional affairs, not only for the families involved, but also since the laws of different countries and international treaties. Cases can take years to come to a resolution, and even then may not result in a "happy" ending.

Anyway, it was an interesting visit. In these cases, consular officers are observers and do not advocate for the left-behind parent in the U.S, we are checking on the child. This time, we met at the mom's lawyer's office, and talked with them about school and home life. The girl seemed to be doing well, living happily with her mother, though she spoke about playing with her favorite dolls which were gifts from her father many years ago.

I don't have that much experience with these types of cases, but the few that have worked with involved a Brazilian woman that married an American man, and somewhere along the way they decide that they can't live together anymore, the husband gets a joint custody agreement that includes restrictions on travel for the child, and mom really wants to go back and live with her family, but won't go without the child, so she takes the child with her. Since she has broken U.S. law, she can't return with the child to the U.S., and Brazil favors mothers in custody cases, so she stays hidden in Brazil. It can be very traumatic and rarely has a clear or clean resolution. I don't know why the parents couldn't resolve their differences well enough to allow the child to visit dad (or mom).

Week 60: TDY Trip to Rio de Janeiro: Immigration Visas

It's the end of the fiscal year, so our sections were using funds to do exchanges and temporary duty assignments within the mission. These exchanges help to foster innovation and establish uniform practices through the sharing of ideas. I was fortunate to go, and I arrived Tuesday morning in Rio de Janeiro for a three day assignment with the U.S. citizen's services (ACS) and immigrant visas (IV) units to observe and learn about services that we don't do as often in Brasília. In this article, I will focus on some of experiences with IV work.

The consulate building in Rio is the oldest of the four U.S. mission structures in Brazil. It was the original embassy chancery before Brazil moved it's federal government to Brasília 50 years ago. Rio is a beautiful city, and I could understand why so many Brazilian government leaders were not enthusiastic about the move to the interior wastelands.

Visa interviews for Brazilians moving to the U.S. to live as legal permanent residents are only done in Rio, and all the interviews are all done by one consular officer. Every day, Rio has 20 to 30 appointments. This is one of the reasons why the immigration process takes a long time. Considering how long people wait to get appointments, it was surprising that there were six no-shows on the first day I was there.

Most immigration visas are given to family members of citizens, though are a limited number given for professional workers, refugees, and some other special categories. While in Rio, I was able to speak with people who were to be reunited with their parents, cildren and/or spouses. I also got to observe interviews for the fiancé visas, a type of non-immgrant visa that turns into a immigrant status after the marriage in the U.S.

We use the interviews to confirm the relationship, check that all the documents are complete, and make certain that there no ineligibilties exist that prevent the beneficiary from receiving a visa.

The consulate receives large packets from the U.S. that are full of paperwork and documents. Often, the first chance a consular officer gets to look at the packet is just before the interview. Prior to the interview, the applicants meet with a visa clerk to have their fingerprints taken and to check that they have all the required documents, like the police background checks, financial records, and medical exam.

Lack of documents is the primary reason for a delay in getting the visa For example, the first couple we saw was fairly routine. They met while doing studies in Spain, but she did not turn in a police background check report from her time in Spain, so the case was put on hold. Another case failed to get the medical exam done before coming for the interview. Another group was delayed because the sponsor did not send updated financial records showing the ability to support another household member.

Confirming possible ineligibilities is another reason for the interview, and why petitions get delayed or denied. We had several cases where the beneficiary had overstayed or been in the U.S. without the right kind of visa, i.e. was an illegal immigrant. Depending on the type if ineligibilty, they are able to petition for a waiver. This easily adds another five to eight months to the case, and may not be granted if there is no hardship shown. For example, the father of the five-year-old U.S. citizen child we saw is likely to have his request approved, but the woman who said she is married to an U.S. citizen but hasn't been in contact with that man in five years probably won't. The waiver also involves an additional significant monetary and time costs for the applicant.

It was a very interesting couple of days for me, and I gained useful experience and knowledge as well as several more stories.

03 October 2011

Week 58 & 38: Going to the Notary

We went to the notary office to have a travel authorization document notarized that would give our daughter permission to stay in a hotel in the charge of other adults while on a school trip. This was my second trip to the notary, and I found it to be a pretty interesting cultural experience. Having authenticated documents is very important for the Brazilian way of doing business and legal matters.

Every day in my job, I have people pushing to me documents that have purple stamps and holographic seals that verify their authenticity. These are declarations of custody, employment, education, school enrollment, authorizations to travel, certified copies, etc. Each document is presented to demonstrate their ties to Brazil. In fact, recognizing real stamps from inkjet prints are one of the skills a consular gains to identify fraudulent documents. The other problem is knowing whether or not these documents are as authentic as the seals, signatures and stamps would have one believe. What does someone need to present to prove the authenticity of a document here? How much can someone pay to make any document "real"? I figured that a trip to the notary would also be a good career development trip. What I learned was that a cartório in Brazil is quite different from going to a notary in the U.S. 

On my trip to the cartório on 27 April 2011, I wrote a few paragraphs intending to post them sooner. I took photos on my trip in September. The two experiences were similar. Here is my account: 

Cartório de Registro

Today I am sitting at the notary office waiting in line to have a permission to travel document authenticated so that my daughter can go on a school field trip to Cristalina next week. I take a number at the desk near the entrance. There are currently 60 people ahead of me in line. The number sign is beeping and calling the next person about every three seconds. There is a line of counters in front of the far two walls of the office from me. Behind the counters are the workers. Clients are standing at the counters, passing documents to the seated officials. I took a seat in the central waiting area with about 100 other people.

Fortunately, it's a pleasant day, and the fans are working to keep the temperature down. As with most things in Brazil, the hardest part was finding the actual location. I was unable to find an address on the Internet, and a colleague who had been here before gave vague directions ("Off the W-3 near block 503 or 504 in Asa Sul").

Rebecca dropped me off at the corner where we saw a 2º c
artório. I knew that that was name for the official documents offices, but I did know what the numbers meant. It turned out that this cartório was the place to get official copies of civil records, like birth, marriage and death certificates. The receptionist instructed me that to get a document notarized, I needed to go to the 1º cartório, and she directed me down the street to Bloco 505. I got the general idea that I would find the notary office behind the building on the corner

When I got to the building on the corner, paper signs taped to fhe windows of told customers that the office had moved to the back of the building and down the stairs to the basement. I continued walking and encountered a mass of people holding official papers waiting for official stamps and seals. I wonder how many of these people are going to be at my window in the coming weeks asking for visas? At the very least, this experience will give me some experience of being on the other side of the desk, looking at the government official, sitting in the crowd of clients waiting to be served, hoping that I won't miss the moment my number is called. 30 more to go.

I still don't know how much this service will cost. The pricing sign on the wall has numbers and services, but I really don't know what I am asking for in Portuguese. Will I pay R$2.50 or R$5.00? At the consulate, we charge US$50 to notarized a document. Since everyone here seems to be eager to have paper signed, it can't be that expensive. At least I'm not requesting certification of a sale, because those fees are 10% to 30% of the value of the sale. There is a cashier booth on the left side of the room. When does someone pay for the service?

Just 10 left. The line is moving very quickly. This seems to be a very efficient process. My wife is not here yet since she had to make a trip to the school to pick up the younger kids.
Can a father really give permissions for his daughter to travel without the mom being present? I guess I'll find out soon. 

It is my turn. My entire wait here has been less than 30 minutes. At the counter, the official asks to see my identity documents to register me with their system. I then present the form, which I sign, and then the clerk puts a stamp next to my signature stating that he compared it to my identity documents, and inserts the edge of the paper into a large electronic stamping machine that places a dated stamp on the paper. He then passes the paper to a man sitting at a desk behind the counter whose job it is to initial the seals. He is the notary. I am  then am told to go and pay the fee of R$2.50 and return with the receipt and pick up my document. 

Here's a photo with the personal information blocked out: 

Since that day, I have actually met a couple of notaries and owners of cartórios during visa interviews. It's an interesting line and work, and can be quite lucrative. (We had a cartório owner present income tax documents claiming millions of reais in income. Brazilians have a tendency to under-report, so he definitely was making a nice living.)  Having authenticated documents is key to conducting business here, and the only way a person can have an authenticated document is to go to the official cartório offices in their neighborhoods. I also now know that even if the stamps may be real, the information on the document can be easily fabricated and not necessarily verified. I was able to give permission for my daughter to travel without even presenting evidence that I was her father or even a custodial guardian. An interesting experience, and definitely one that a person should do to see what Brazilians face in their lives.