Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Trip to the U.S. Consulate

It all started when I contacted the FBU, or Federal Benefits Unit, in Mexico City via email that I wanted to apply for Social Security benefits as retirement is looming.
They emailed back that they would be glad to take my application over the phone after I sent them (1) a certified copy of my birth certificate and (2) a certified copy of my passport.  I had the birth certificate copy and asked them where to get the passport copy.  At the U.S. Consulate office in Merida, came the reply.
Having passed it every working day for over a year, I knew it was located on Calle 60.  I went to their website and found a form to fill out requesting an appointment which I made for 9:30 this morning.
By the way, this lovely courtyard is something you are not likely to see.  I stole this picture off their website.
First of all,  know that there is no parking here.  One must cruise the streets looking for a place to park that won't block a driveway lest someone gets pissed-off and lets all the air out of your tires.
Then it's a walk back to the building.  The building itself sits off the street protected by anti-crash barriers, a phalanx of rent-a-cops dressed in paramilitary combat boots and berets, and two state police officers sporting real live semi-automatic rifles.  Obviously I was not going to fall victim to the dangers being trumpeted by the north-of-the-boarder news organizations.
So I checked in, presenting a printout of my appointment, as directed, to a guard inside a control room who was looking at me through double-paned, bullet proof glass.  I slid the paper under a stainless steel slit and after writing some things on a clipboard, the guard directed me to wait as I was 10 minutes early.  I observed many Mexicans being buzzed into the building armed with passports and stacks of documents.
Eventually another guard came out of the office and indicated that I was to come inside.  The first stop was the security room which resembled nothing more than what you would find at the average airport.  Two guards asked me to put all valuables and metal objects in a tray.  Then my manpurse was put under the x-ray and one of the guards said please remove your lighter and your electronic device.  I had forgotten that I carry an extra cigarette lighter.  I removed it and the electronic device which was an MP3 player.  As I  did so, the guard noticed a book of matches I carry for backup in case the lighter goes bad and I was asked to remove it too.  Then it was through the metal detector where my watch and ring made a buzz, but that didn't seem to concern the guards.
Next it was through a door and into a room where there were about 20 Mexicans waiting to be called to a service desk.  A new guard led me past them to a security door manned by another guard who was sitting in a room with bullet-proof glass, security monitor screens and an array of buttons one of which she pushed to unlock the door.  The guard ushered me into another small room and to another security door manned by another security guard behind his bullet-proof glass, looking at his monitors.  This guard passed us through the door and I was  handed-off to a new guard.  
This room was the payload.  About 50 or 60 Mexicans were seated and waiting for their number to be called to one of about 6 windows sporting the LED number signs above them.  I would have loved to have taken some photos but, of course, cameras were not allowed.
My guard handed me a number:
I noticed a few things right away:  First, the U.S. Consulate did not get the message to "spring forward" one hour.  (2)  At number 2,002 I was in for a long wait as a glance at the windows showed they were now serving #37 or so.  And (3) the mere possession of this ticket indicating that I was an American Citizen should suffice for the folks over at Social Security.
The guard then led me over to a small, two window area that was just for American Citizens and they were serving #2001.  #2001 was  Steve Bell.  More about him in a moment.
There was a doorbell looking thing on one of the support pillars indicating that I was to press it for service, but "DO NOT PRESS MORE THAN ONCE".  At this point I wasn't about to break any rules.  I took a seat and after about 5 minutes, a nice young woman motioned me up to her window which, in keeping with the decor de jour, was double-paned and bullet proof.
She asked me how she could assist me and I explained that Social Security up in Mexico City was requesting that I  send them a certified copy of my passport.  She said she would  be glad to do that and asked for the passport.  I slid the passport through the slit under the glass and then she informed me the fee for this service would be $30.00.  I was a little stunned by this and then I recovered, rationalizing that someone had to pay for all this security.  I informed her I only dealt in pesos these days and she replied that would be fine.  
"That will be $510 pesos."
Now, I'm no math expert and I haven't checked the exchange rate in a few days, but by my reckoning, $510 pesos was  going to work out to be nearly $39.00.  Now I was starting to get a little steamed.  It's one thing to charge the fee, but quite another to offer an exchange rate that would make the money changers at the Cancun  airport blush.  But, they had my gonads figuratively in a set of vise grips and if I was going to get my monthly retirement check I'd been paying into for 45 years, I'd have to go along.
"Have a seat and I'll be back in a few minutes", she smiled.
Which brings us back to Steve Bell.  Steve was in a wheelchair being assisted by a Mexican fellow, and was obviously missing his right leg.  Steve was wearing an Army Ranger First Brigade cap and I found out he was 74 years old.  He was a Vietnam veteran and had been awarded 3 purple hearts in combat and was there on his third visit to renew his passport.  He had a flight leaving for Miami in two days and was getting understandably nervous about not making his flight.  I found out Steve was going to Miami as that was where the nearest veterans hospital was and where he was to receive a new prosthetic leg.  He being a military guy, I said to him, "So, those Navy Seals did a hell of a job on those Somali pirates, huh?"
"They always do", Steve observed dryly.
Steve had been living in Merida for many years and regaled me with many stories of how much things had changed and prices for houses had gone up over the years and so forth.
I digress only to demonstrate how frigging long it takes to make a copy of a passport.  Oh, and a letter saying they looked it over and all was Kosher.
Then a new young woman appeared and motioned  me to the window.  There was my letter, passport copy and a receipt for $510 pesos.  The new woman said to me:
"If you don't mind me asking, why are you getting a certified copy of your passport?"
"Well", I replied, "As I told the other woman, it's to send to FBU in Mexico City so I can get Social Security checks when I retire."
"Do you have the letter they sent you?", she asked.
"They didn't send  me a letter."
"Oooooooo.  That's too bad because if you had the letter, there is no charge for this service as it involves another Federal agency", she advised.
"Well, they did send me an email telling me to come here, would that work", I asked.
"Let me check", she said walking away.
I turned around just in time to see Steve holding his newly minted passport which meant his new leg was just a short flight to Miami away.
We said our good-byes and I added, "Enjoy Miami!", to which Steve grumbled, "I hate Miami".
Woman #2 returned with the following information. "We can take a copy of the email, but it has to be today and it has to be before 1 p.m.  We can't take it tomorrow."
"I'll do better than that",I shot back, "I'll be back in 20 minutes.  And because you've been so nice, I'm going to give you a free puppy!"
"What??" She eyed me warily.
Thinking she could press the panic button at any time and send a squad of baton-swinging rent-a-cops down on me, I didn't press my offer.  Instead I found my escort and we doubled back to the security room where I was given back all my possessions.  I hoofed it back to my car and drove back to the office where I took a screen shot and printed the email from the FBU folks.  Then, a brief drive back to the Consulate office.
Then I repeated the check-in process (minus all offending items which I left in the car) and made my way back to the window where woman #1 met me to take my email to the back room for inspection.  This time I had no one to talk to, sitting next to a sea of Mexicans waiting to obtain and pay for visas to the States.   It's easy to see what really generates the cash here and it's not my measly $30.00/$510 pesos, which was cheerfully refunded.
So, for a 2 hour investment, some misunderstandings, and an interesting look into the bowels of the U.S. Consulate, Merida, I am now ready to tackle Social Security.  Wish me luck.
More later,


ADO said...

I was last in the Consulate at its prior location, in the late '80s, pre-"9/11" to be sure. There was not a sense then that one was entering a bunker.
After all the security checks you had to pass through, is it really necessary that our officials or Foreign Service National employees hide behind a thick glass window? And couldn't you have been told at the outset that there would be no charge if the document was for another federal agency!? At least that info came out, finally.
However, even back then in the late '80s it was hard for a plain ol' tax paying U.S. citizen to breach the entrance to the Embassy in Mexico City. The only advantage we had there was that the guards were English-speaking U.S. Marines!

Malcolm said...

This has been one of your best posts yet...I was laughing the whole way through. :)

Keep up the great work!

norm said...

Fine post, kinda Alice's Restaurant type humor.

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