Monday, December 6, 2010

FM3 The Visa Story

Living in Mexico full-time requires a visa different from the tourist visa you get for a week-long stay at an all-inclusive resort on the Mexican Riviera. The Mexican government offers several options, but for us the FM3 Non-Immigrant is the best fit.
The document simply states that we cannot work for money in Mexico and have no plans to become Mexican citizens.
It isn’t cheap. Over a five year period, we budget between $500 and $750 at the Immigration Office.

It isn’t forever. The initial process is repeated every five years. The visas are reviewed annually. The same forms are required every year with additional forms along with a higher payment at the five year mark.
It isn’t stress-free. Along with the required forms which ask the most inane questions imaginable, there must be proof of marriage (no running around Mexico acting married with being married), proof of financial solvency (the Mexican government does not need any non-Mexicans running around the country without money for rice and beans), proof of residence (you absolutely must have a place to live; no sleeping in the park or the plaza or in your camper in the Wal-Mart parking lot), and proof of good citizenship (this is easy – as long as you have no legal infractions on your Mexican record, you’re home free).

Since we’ve been doing this for several years, I thought I had the process down pretty well. On November 9th, we took the 8:00 bus to Torreon, presenting ourselves at the immigration office at 11:00 with the required papers including copies of bank statements, marriage certificate, translation of marriage certificate, all necessary forms ready to submit, copies of our passports and our FM3 booklets.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that in the short 12 months since my last visit, everything had changed. The required documentation was still the same, but all the forms had changed and there was a new wrinkle: an additional form that had to be completed on the internet (Of course, there was no computer for my use at the immigration office; I would have to go down the street to an internet shop.) The pictures that had been required only once every five years were now required every year.
The office would close at 1:00PM.
I had less than two hours to complete a stack of new forms, find a photographer who could make the required photos, find an internet shop and complete the required form, go to a bank to make the required payment, return to the immigration office and somehow charm the clerk into filing the papers immediately so that I would not have to return the next day. As we scurried out of the office, I was really wishing I had brought an extra set of underwear because I was convinced we would be staying overnight.
At 1:00, I was back at the office, breathless from my run from the internet shop. Stanley was still there collecting copies.
All was well. The clerk agreed to file the review request.
An hour later, she called me to the desk to show me the terrible error I had made. In my haste to complete the internet forms, I had omitted our middle names. The names had to appear on this internet form exactly as they were on our passports. With a look that chilled my blood, she left me standing at the desk while she went back to her computer to redo the entire thing.
At 3:00, it was done. We signed yet another document swearing that everything was correct. Before leaving the office, we were given a receipt for our FM3 booklets. As usual, we left our booklets with the clerk. She told me we could pick them up in about two weeks; we should check the internet to know when they were ready.
Off we went in search of something to eat and a bus back to Parras. By this time, I was so hungry, I would have sworn to the veracity of almost anything.
On the way home, Stanley and I talked about the new forms and the internet connection we would have with the office. Although it was painful to experience initially, we decided it was a good idea. We were actually looking forward to monitoring our visas as they were subjected to review.
Just a few days later, I checked on the visas using the password I had been given. There they were: marching through the process, but still unfinished. It was just as I had expected.
Several days later, I checked again. No change.
It became part of my daily routine to check. I checked so many times I memorized both the seven digit identification number and the five digit password number. No change.
I started to wonder what was going on . . .
I started thinking . . .
Several months ago, on a trip back from the United States, I had brought a tray of tomato and herb plants and a small almond tree intended as a gift for a friend in Parras. To make a long story short, the plants were confiscated.
We had brought plants into Mexico many times with no problems, but on this particular day, the officer in charge was young and highly motivated and her supervisor was not present so the plants were confiscated.
That would not have been such a bad thing, but additionally, I had to submit my US driver’s license, my US passport, and my Mexican FM3 so that they could be copied. Then, we waited almost an hour for the clerk to type up a confession that I was required to sign.
The confession simply stated I had attempted to import plants into Mexico without a phytosanitary certificate from the United States and a CITES permit. The confession further stated I had voluntarily abandoned the plants when I was informed my actions were in violation of the law.
There was now a manila folder stuffed with copies of all my identifying documents in the Mexican customs office at the Columbia border crossing, but I didn’t give it much thought. It was just another entry to add to my collection of interesting stories about living in Mexico.
Nothing to worry about.
Until November 25th. That was the day it occurred to me that there might be a connection between the incident at the Columbia border crossing and the lack of resolution of my FM3 in Torreon.
It’s funny how one little thought can start the flow of acid in your stomach - or at least in mine.
Now, I was worried. A lot! Had the Mexican government become so tuned into the internet they had been able to link my manila folder on the border to the immigration office in Torreon? Would be my visa be denied? What would I do? How could I appeal? What would it cost? Would I have to leave the country? Was there another type of visa I could apply for that would allow me to stay even with my transgression? Would a bribe help? To whom would it be made? How much should it be? Or would an attempted bribe seal my fate as a criminal forever?
Because I speak Spanish, I had been the one to assume responsibility for the attempted plant importation. Stanley didn’t have a personalized manila file in Columbia. Would they give him a visa or deny his also because of his association with me?
I’m not saying any of this was logical, but it consumed me for several days.
Finally, the message I had been looking for appeared on the computer screen:
Favor de presentarse en la oficina.
There was no indication we could pick up the visas. Just ‘come to the office.’
Well, the visas were ready. The clerk was as pleasant as she could be, never once reminding me she had spent an unpleasant two hours correcting my mistakes. All was forgiven.
We signed the documents and she disappeared around the corner with them. Moments later, she returned to the desk with laminated cards which replaced the flimsy green booklets from before. Quite snazzy!
She wished us a Merry Christmas in her very best English and handed us the visas.
Just as mine left her hand she noticed something. I saw it, too – at the very same moment. My signature on the visa did not match the signature on my passport. I had left out my middle name.
She looked at the signature. She looked at me. She opened her mouth, closed it, smiled, and wished me another Merry Christmas.

Above are a couple of photos of the outside of the state government building in Torreon.  The bottom is the inside of the Torreon bus station.
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