Tales of Retirement in Paradise
|Chapter 22: Crossing The Border - Legally|
Polly G. Vicars
The U.S. headlines and the airwaves have been filled with news about illegal immigrants. Generally, when you read or hear those words you immediately think of Mexicans, Cubans, or Haitians.
But if you are Americans living in México, the term, "illegal immigrant" takes on a whole new meaning. We have spent a lot of time
In 1988, on our first visit to Vallarta, the infamous one in which, within three days Husband and I bought a condominium, decided to sell everything we owned in Kentucky and move permanently - lock, stock, and fishing equipment - to México, we entered the country on the usual tourist card.
With our decision to retire permanently in México, we researched what immigration documents were available to us. The best known and most used is the tourist card; it is officially called FMT (Forma Migratoria Tourista) and permits entry into México for a stay of up to six months. At the end of the six months you must leave México.
Many of our friends and acquaintances, some of whom have lived here more than twenty years, are still relying on this type of immigration status - although the Mexican government frowns on that. They simply plan their trips to the States to coincide with the expiration date of their FMT's, do their vacationing or their business, and return to México where they are issued a new permit for another six months.
This has definite pluses and minuses. The largest minus for the expatriate is that if you own a foreign plated car (you must get used to thinking of yourself and your car as foreigners) you and your car must leave the country before the six month anniversary of your entry date. This means it doesn't matter if the social event of the season is Saturday night or if your best friends from Oregon are coming in on a cruise that day; if your time is up, your time is up! You have to leave the country by that date!
When you return, a new six month permit is issued. Most would say that the biggest plus for simply living on your FMT is that you may never have to visit the infamous Immigration Office for what invariably turns out to be extended and repeated visits to straighten out whatever problem you encounter. We were told that such visits rate right up there with a hemorrhoidectomy complicated with a severe case of the bubonic plague! We were not to find it so.
We knew we would enter the country on the FMT but would be immediately eligible to apply for the FM3. The FM3 was good for one year, renewable for five years, (now, they are renewable for an unlimited number of years), and permitted you to remain in México without those mandated trips out of the country. If you brought in a car, it was legal as long as your FM3 was legal. The FM3 also allowed you a one-time, duty-free shipment of household goods into México.
Another category, the FM2 was available to persons who had decided to live permanently in México, but usually only after having had an FM3 for five years. When all requirements are met and a person has had his FM2 renewed for each of five years, the Mexican government decides whether or not to award you permanent immigration status. If they do, you are an inmigrado (permanent resident-alien). But we were only worrying about the moment and getting our things here, not five years in the future.
So the FM3 was for us. I began gathering the necessary documents before we left Kentucky. The Mexican Consulate in the U.S. told us we would need, in duplicate, a doctor's certificate of good health; a notarized letter that we had no criminal record; a notarized, detailed accounting from our bank of our monthly income; our marriage and birth certificates; and seven profile and seven full-face photos. I told them we didn't want top security clearance in their equivalent of the CIA; we just wanted to retire in their country. They did not think I was funny!
Remember, when we obtained the FM3 we could bring in a shipment of household goods duty-free. No matter that the condominium we bought was fully furnished, and we really didn't need to bring anything with us. With more than a thirty-eight-year accumulation of "stuff," there was some we just couldn't leave. So, after agonizing culling and a series of garage sales, we were ready with the final items we wanted to send into México.
My precious cargo consisted of several magnificent, but gigantic pieces of art by Talented Brother who lives in New Orleans and other pieces I decided I just didn't want to live without. Husband's boxes contained as much of his fishing equipment and as many of his hand tools as he could cram into his allowed space. I found it easier to leave family heirlooms than he did to leave his joiner-planer and his circular saw. Our treasures were crated and held in storage waiting for us to obtain the FM3 that would allow their legal entrance into México.
We arrived in Puerto Vallarta in late August during what had to have been the hottest week of the hottest month on the record. But was I daunted? No! I admit to wasting all of the first day unpacking, but on the second day of retirement in México, I coaxed Husband out into the midday sun to join me in what was to be our initial Mexican adventure; our first encounter with
I M M I G R A T I O N !
We dressed in "going to a government office" clothes, instead of the shorts and T-shirts the weather called for, and having no car, walked the fifteen or so blocks to where "The Office" was located. I told you this had to be the hottest spell on record and, of course, we hadn't yet become acclimated to life in the tropics. After a few wrong turns and many futile efforts to ask directions, we arrived at our destination a little wet behind the ears in both senses of the expression.
I want to point out that our Spanish vocabulary consisted of "sí and no," but it never occurred to me that this was going to be a handicap. My natural optimism and positive thinking frequently get in the way of reality. By the most wonderful of accidents (have you noticed how many accidents seem to pave our way?), the dreaded jefe (boss) whom we had heard was something of an ogre, was on vacation. A lovely señorita, who spoke a little more English than we did Spanish, helped us. She was the antithesis of every immigration official in the world; she was kind, sympathetic and helpful. We struggled through the language barrier, and finally it became clear that the documents we had so carefully collected were not exactly what they should have been. The doctor's certificate had to be from a Vallarta doctor, the income documents had to be certified by the American Consular Agent, and all the documents had to be translated into Spanish. Besides those minor details, we had what we needed.
You know Husband was a mañana man long before he retired to the land of mañanas, and that he is a quite intelligent fellow, so I'm sure it is no surprise to you that he strongly suggested we go home and start again the next day.
With my determination, which is strong enough to daunt Godzilla when my mind is made up, I replied sweetly to his suggestion with, "No, let's get this done now!"
He reluctantly acquiesced, and, after getting directions to the health service office where a doctor would certify our good health, we started out again. Remember, this was just our second day, and we had not yet learned the first rule of survival in the tropics, "If you are dumb enough to be downtown in the midday sun, walk on the shady side of the street!" Not only were we walking on the wrong side of the street, we walked in the wrong direction and became hopelessly lost. But we didn't give up! We walked and we sweated, and we sweated and we walked! Usually genial Husband said we need not worry because soon we would be overcome by heat exhaustion, pass out on the street, and an ambulance would take us right to the doctor.
Just before his prediction could come true, we stumbled into the health service office to be greeted by a young, handsome doctor who spoke perfect English. He understood our plight, gave us large glasses of water (purified, of course) and, after reading our certificates of health from our Kentucky doctor, wrote out their equivalents in Spanish, signed and sealed them for presentation to Immigration! There was no charge for his service. We were beginning to realize what it was about Vallarta that so quickly captivated us - the remarkable people who live here!
Husband finally did prevail, and we left the rest for mañana. The next day we started out dressed more appropriately, walked in the right direction, and on the right side of the street, to get the other papers translated, certified, and ready for presentation. This day we met no obstacles as the genial and helpful U.S. Consular Agent (who has become a close friend) knew everything we needed and efficiently took care of us.
When everything was in order, we went back to La Señorita at Immigration. She looked everything over, said it was as it should be and that we would have our FM3's in five days. By this time La Señorita and I were amigas. We exchanged hugs (as is the charming custom here with both men and women), adioses and left, serene in the knowledge that our treasures waiting in Kentucky would soon be starting their journey south.
You tourists who are reading this saga will not think there is anything remarkable about the fact that when the five days were up and we returned to get the FM3's, they were indeed ready and waiting for us. However, you old- timers who have personal knowledge of such dealings, will , I'm sure, chuckle, roll your eyes and say, "No way!" But I swear that La Señorita (who is also now a cherished friend) came through, the treasures made their trip south in perfect condition, and together we have lived happily ever after.
I'll admit that this may have been a once in a lifetime experience because each renewal of our FM3's became harder, more complicated and more frustrating. The rules changed, the jefes changed, the forms changed. But my optimism held and after five years with FM3's, we started the FM2 process with high hopes and great expectations.
The local office found all our papers in order and said there would be "no problema." Little did they know! They had to send the entire file to México City for approval and this approval would not come easily. The translation of our marriage license obviously was still, to them, in a foreign language because, although everything else was in order, they sent it all back and told us to have the marriage license re-translated and certified by the Mexican Consulate nearest to the place of our wedding. Since that office was in Miami, Florida, it took a couple of months before the whole file was ready again for the trip to México City. They sent it back again saying that it had to be translated by a "perido," a legal translator, here in Vallarta. When this second translation was finally secured and sent to México City, they lost it and wrote for another. We sent a copy and they returned it, too, saying it had not been translated correctly.
At this time I suggested to the local office (by now we had spent so much time there that we were all good friends, and they were as frustrated as we were) that we, who had been legally, incontestably, and unequivocally married for over forty years, would get married all over again in Vallarta and then we wouldn't need a translation. Though I do believe my humor escaped them, this suggestion did evoke a solution from the local jefe; bring in two Mexican citizens who would swear that we were legally married.
We prevailed upon El Capitán and the beautiful señora who efficiently manages our condominium. Neither of them had the foggiest if we were actually legally married, but they affixed their signatures to a very legal looking document, which attested to our state of matrimony.
Although from start to finish the process took over one year, after this paper was signed, we had the FM2's in hand in less than two weeks! We took champagne to the local office to celebrate with those who had, for so long, labored with us. Now with two of the required five renewals behind us (they went through like greased lightning), we have only three more years to wait to see if México City chooses to convey to us the immigrant's version of nirvana, permanent immigration status with no renewals necessary! Hopefully that will not be material for another story!
(I am happy to report that we have now had our permanent immigration status of Inmigrado since March of 1999. We can come and go as we please and do not have to get renewals. But we have kept up our friendship with many of the lovely people who work at Immigration since we taught several of them English while volunteering in the Holt School in downtown Vallarta. Their friendship really came in handy after brother Harry, who lives in New Orleans, lost everything, including his passport, in the flood of Katrina. The airlines refused to sell him a ticket to Puerto Vallarta because he had no passport. Of course he had one, but it was under 10 feet of water in his home. One call to my friends at Immigration and they made all the arrangements with the airlines to allow him into Mexico and my other friends at the US Consulate facilitated a new passport for him. I am always overwhelmed by the kindness of the people here. 20 years and counting and they have always come through when I needed them. I have to say that neither Husband nor I have ever had the slightest regret that we chose this paradise in which to retire.)
Polly G. Vicars and her husband of 57 years, Hubert (a.k.a. "Husband") retired to Puerto Vallarta in 1988 and soon became active members of several charitable organizations. Polly is the author of "Tales of Retirement in Paradise: Life in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico" [a sell-out!] and "More Tales of Retirement in Puerto Vallarta and Around the World." Proceeds from the sale of her books go to the America-Mexico Foundation, a scholarship foundation that is their passion.
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