How I Became Illegal

Well everyone, I’ve hit upon the one universal element of the human experience. Is it creativity and artistry? The importance of family? Religious devotion?

Nope! It’s bureaucracy.

That’s right! Wherever you live, small town or capital city, nation-state or territorial protectorate, you will have to jump through a lot of hoops. (Remember my fun times at the DMV?)

Those hoops are especially onerous for those who cross borders. The quest for citizenship aside, overstaying a tourist visa becomes a bureaucratic crisis in every place I’ve ever been. I distinctly remember numerous visits to the local police in India, making friends with migrant workers and staring at teetering stacks of hundreds of dusty ledgers, waiting to be told what document I had failed to procure this time.

Morocco, of course, is no exception. Foreign residents in Morocco must apply for a “Carte de Séjour” (residency card) from their local police or gendarmeries.

When Peace Corps sent my group of 95 volunteers off to our respective towns, we had only a week and a half left on our entry visas. This meant we had to scramble to get Carte de Séjours, and fast. Helpfully, Peace Corps gave each of us a large folder filled with a number of documents: work attestations, medical certificates, homestay verifications, host country statements of support, etc. The looming deadline of visa expiration proved a sheer impossibility to meet, given that we also had to wait for the national government to issue us security clearances – but only AFTER we had visited our local government for one form or another.

On top of this, most gendarmes didn’t seem quite sure what was going on. Some gendarmes wanted their volunteers to give them thirty copies and five pictures; others just wanted the originals; mine wanted three copies of everything and eight pictures. (Not long after they changed their minds: ten pics.) Why are the requirements so different on a town-to-town basis? We’ll never know…but I suspect that most everyone was making up the rules as they went along. Almost every time I visited my gendarmes, I learned about something new I was expected to provide: a new attestation, a certificate of residency, a copy of my lease agreement.

I shouldn’t neglect to mention that the Moroccan government has a serious thing for stamps. I’ve never gotten so many documents notarized in my ENTIRE LIFE as I did in the month that I applied for my Carte de Séjour. Even once I had all my paperwork in hand, I had to get numerous photocopies of each piece, and then get all the photocopies notarized.

As you know, I live in a village. The gendarmes and a photocopy machine are a bus ride away, but my local government offices are close by. So in the course of a single day I would take the bus to the gendarmes, then ride back to the government offices to pick up the paperwork I needed, go back into town to get them photocopied, go back to the offices to get them notarized, and then BACK to my gendarmes to hand everything in.

All this would be exhausting enough, but navigating even simple day-to-day tasks in a foreign language requires a lot of mental concentration. Trying to fulfill the requirements of my Carte de Séjour wiped me out on a regular basis! And this must have paled in comparison to the stress that our Safety and Security team was going through in Rabat, scrambling to get 95 security clearances and repeatedly explaining the requirements to befuddled local authorities who had never dealt with foreigners before.

I have now been illegal in Morocco for about two months, and I’m still waiting for that illusive Carte to become mine.

Luckily, I never lost sight of the absurdity and hilarity of the entire debacle. While bureaucracy might be tedious, I always find it a funny and even poignant expression of a distinctly human relationship to rules and order.  I thought that bringing a little levity to this exasperating shared experience might be a great idea, so I decided to try my hand at songwriting for the first time ever. (Unless I count the folk song I co-wrote for History of the 60s in 12th grade…which I tend not to.) After the lyrics were hammered out I roped in the musical talents of Pete and Britt Luby (check out their insightful and beautifully written blog), and the Ballad of the Carte de Séjour was born! Video of our performance after the jump.

One last thing: I don’t want to write about this topic without bringing up the sheer privilege it is to have legal residency assured. I think it’s safe to say that most international development and aid workers do not have to worry about deportation – a fear that overshadows the lives of millions of productive and law-abiding United States residents, and tens of millions of refugees worldwide.  As glib as this blog post’s title is, I am under no illusions that as a citizen of a world superpower working with an established international organization, my illegal status is an amusing annoyance at worst.

And finally, The Ballad of the Carte de Séjour:

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