An American Completes The "Path To Citizenship" In Mexico. It's Hard!
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February 25, 2009

By An American-Mexican Mom

VDARE.COM readers are all too familiar with the "path to citizenship" that was part of the notorious Bush-Kennedy-McCain amnesty proposals. For an American living in Mexico, the path to Mexican citizenship requires skilled use of a machete

Americans live in Mexico for various reasons. The typical expat living here is retired and supported by savings or Social Security. But there's also a growing number of younger working-age expat residents, like myself.

With few exceptions all foreign visitors to Mexico  and with no exceptions all foreign residents of Mexico, are required to have permission from the Mexican government in the form of a visa.

A large percentage of expats are "snow birds": they live here only seasonally, returning to the States; the routine is repeated yearly. This kind of foreign resident usually holds a visa called an "FM 3 rentista" (non working temporary resident alien).

Foreign residents who work in Mexico require a more specialized visa called an FM2 or FM 3 lucrativa"Lucrativa" as in making money. These visas come in the form of a little book similar in size to a passport. Technically, they are to be carried at all times. The working visas are granted to a person for a specific job. (Allan Wall had one of these when he was teaching English in Mexico.) I will explain the importance of this later on.

There is a "path to citizenship" in Mexico. According to the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Relations  (SRE) an American citizen may apply for Mexican citizenship: 

  • after residing in Mexico for five years under an FM 2 visa; or
  • after residing in Mexico for two years with a visa if they are married to a Mexican citizen; or,
  • after residing in Mexico for two years with a visa if they have Mexican-born children; or
  • after making a "significant contribution" (supposedly cultural or scientific but not limited to these)

There's a long list of documents required in addition to the completed application form and the payment in order to submit a citizenship application.

In 2003, after having lived in Mexico for five years, and with my children then aged 1 and 4 years, I decided that it would be in our best interest to become a Mexican citizen. Accordingly, I applied based on the fact that I have two children born here in Mexico and I had been residing in the country for more than two years.

After our seasonal work had ended, my Mexican husband, the kids and I made the trek to the SRE office in our state capital (five hours on a windy one-lane road each way—with small children) to apply. I had all of the documents in order as well as the proof of payment for the application. In Mexico we pay for all government services ahead of time to prevent bribery ("mordida"). So even before applying, I was already financially committed.

After a few hours of waiting in a mob scene at the office, my turn came up. I presented all of the documents, the payment, the photographs and even my Mexican-born children in person as was required. My paperwork was received and I was told that it would be sent to Mexico City (a.k.a. "D.F." for Distrito Federal) and that was it. I asked for a receipt or file number but was told that they "don't work that way".

On leaving, both my husband and I realized that they could just throw my file into the garbage can and forget about it. But we were sure that I would be approved. After all, I had been living in Mexico for five years, have Mexican children, a business, employees, pay taxes and abide by the law.

That was in September of 2003.

To make a long story short, my application was eventually disqualified. Part of this was my own fault. When my children were born, the city filled out their birth certificates with the mother's name (my name) as it appears on my birth certificate. Well, 35 years, one marriage and a divorce later, my birth name was no longer my legal name.

It took nearly one year for SRE to notify me of this discrepancy. Then they claimed that, since my application had taken so long, I would have to start the process over again.

The court order to change my name on the kids' birth certificates took almost another year. During the time that I was waiting for the court order, I could have reapplied based on residency alone (I was now past 5 years). But the head of the SRE office in our capital city talked me out of it. I later found out that this same person does not want Americans to become Mexican citizens due to our "inhumane immigration policy", a popular sentiment among staff at SRE.

I applied again and paid again for citizenship in the spring of 2006. This time I had the children's birth certificates "exactly correct", even the seal was clear. (On a past trip I learned how important "exactly correct" is to Mexican beaurocracy. The newly-corrected birth certificates that I had worked so hard for were rejected upon submittal. Everything was spelled correctly, all dates, places, times were perfect but the official at the SRE office told me that because the seal, the ink stamp of our municipality, was not "perfectly clear"—it was slightly blotched—Mexico City wouldn't accept it. This official further revealed that Mexico City will think they are fake papers! So we were turned away and accomplished nothing. We had many visits to SRE like this.)

Throughout the entire time that my application was considered I was still required to follow immigration law and renew my visa on a yearly basis. I came here to live but instead of working for an employer, I opted to start a business and formed a Mexican corporation. I work for myself but my job is specific and I am highly restricted when it comes to earning a living, even within my own company.

Every year in the spring I must renew my visa. Since I use the office located in my town and there are documents that they already have on file, like my birth certificate (the one that has my birth name on it), and the apostille of the birth certificate- (because a notary in my birth country is considered meaningless and an apostille is proof that the notarized seal on my document is real and not fake) so I don't have to present them again.

Depending on who's at the desk at the immigration office, the list of requirements will differ. But the important ones are generally the same: my passport and a copy of every page; the tax registry of my company; the past tax payments of my company; a list of the persons under my employ with proof that they are receiving government benefits; proof of where my business is physically located; a letter from my business offering me the job and the description of the work; a letter from me accepting the position (now they have me writing letters to myself and responding to myself too); the payment for the renewal, and a folder. I guess that's because they're too cheap to buy office supplies.

I've learned through the years that government officials in Mexico cannot collect money directly. There are special forms that must be filled out and presented at the bank along with the payment deposit itself. The bank stamps your copy or gives a receipt and that is your proof of payment. The information on the form ensures that the payment goes directly to the appropriate government agency, so that bribes can be prevented. But more often than not, the immigration office in my city strongly recommends that all payments are to be made to them in cash. And of course the payment will vary from person to person.

A few rules of thumb when dealing with the local Mexican immigration office: the wealthier they perceive you to be the more you will pay. The more in a hurry you are to receive your visa, the more you will pay. The more trouble you can get into for working without the proper permissions, the more you will pay. The closer you are to Christmas, the more you will pay.

There are things that are supposed to protect you from overpaying, like the sign inside the immigration office clearly stating the amount that each visa costs. But all information is printed in Spanish and there is no help available in English. We are in Mexico, after all. (Few expats who come to live here ever bother to learn the language, so they set themselves up.)

I'm just a poor working stiff so my husband accompanies me each year and we present my requirements, along with the bank-stamped payment form and the folder. My husband, like many Mexicans, gets visibly upset when the subject of mordida-collecting government officials comes up. The guys at immigration know this (it's a small town) so they reluctantly accept my papers and then take their sweet time. Rarely are we ever in a hurry to receive what we came for.

In 2007, after getting nowhere with SRE in our state capital city, I attempted to contact the head office in the Distrito Federal. Their telephone numbers when dialed rang and rang but nobody ever picked up. In June I hired a lawyer to help me move things along. Based on how far into this process I was, he said that I should have Mexican citizenship within 8 months.

In the meantime I found an area on the SRE website where one can e-mail with questions. I e-mailed a complaint in July of 2007, but received no response. Meanwhile the lawyer went to Mexico City for other clients and asked about my particular case. He was told that my solicitation had gone on for too long and the best thing for me to do would be to start all over again. So we scheduled the trip to Mexico City for late October 2007.

But in September I received a letter from SRE stating that my case could continue. In it, I was instructed to present the following documentation: my passport and two copies of each page, my current FM 3 visa with two copies of each page, a letter stating how many times I exited and entered the country within the last two years, and a set of recent passport-sized photos no more than 30 days old.

As I prepared to go to D.F. accompanied by my lawyer, he gave me the list of documents to bring. Against his advice, I brought a  small rolling suitcase that contained every document they have ever asked for in the past and including my children's and my husband's documents and then some. I also brought that letter that I received in September. It came in very handy later on.

While I had remembered all of these documents, I had forgotten those photos that I was supposed to bring. Fortunately, according to my lawyer there was a photo studio that could do it near the SRE offices and we had an hour to kill. When I went to where my lawyer said this place was, it had obviously moved. I asked around and was able to find another one. Upon receiving the photos, I sprinted back to SER. I found the rest of the people in the group—American citizens also accompanying our lawyer to apply for citizenship—seated and visibly upset.

Prior to this day, American citizens residing in Mexico for five years were eligible to apply for citizenship. But they had just found out this was no longer the case. That morning, the office of SRE refused the citizenship applications of scores of people (remember these applicants have already paid the fee, yet were refused) and we watched in horror as tears streamed down faces of people who came from as far away as Tijuana (that's as far away from the Distrito Federal as you can get and still be in Mexico).

Our lawyer was at the window with one of the attendants. I went up to him with that letter that I received a few weeks prior. I was instructed by the person behind the counter that I could not apply for citizenship. Her assumption was that I was in the same boat as the others. I gave her the letter. With raised eyebrows, she said that she had to show it to her boss.

Twenty minutes later, I was told that I only have to present the documents listed in the letter then my case could move forward. So I gave her the documents and then tried to give her the photos but she refused them, saying they were "not needed".

I then stepped into the back room where they digitized my fingerprints and signature. I mentioned the photos to the woman behind the desk, and again was told they weren't needed. Then she showed me her computer where my original photos were displayed. These were the same ones that I submitted four years before with my original citizenship application. I looked much younger for not having been put through constant head games by SRE. Go figure.

In December, I was surprised to receive a phone call from the SRE official in my state capital requesting me to make the trip there in order to present the documents required in that letter from SER back in September. It had been cc'd to him. He must have been made aware of it when I received it in September, yet he was informing me four months later.

In early 2008, I tried my luck at finding out how much longer my application for citizenship would take. I wasn't surprised to find that my local SRE official knew nothing about my case and that the head office in Mexico City didn't respond.

So I was pleasantly curious to see another letter from SRE in my mailbox in April 2008. This letter stated that I will need to present (at my local SRE office) my passport with two copies of each page, my current visa along with two copies of every page, a letter stating my exits and entries into the country—all the same stuff they've asked me for four times already. I wonder what they do with it? Plus two new things: the complimentary payment to complete my application process—and I would have to pass the newly-required Mexican History exam.

So I scheduled my appointment to present these things and take the exam in late May 2008.

At this point my work visa was only a few weeks away from expiring. So I decided that it would be best to renew it before going to the state capital to present those documents. After all, if I didn't they'd ask for it again anyway.

This time at the immigration office, we were in a hurry to receive my renewal. I informed them that I had a "family emergency" and that I would need my visa right away so that I could travel. If I had told them the real reason why I needed it, they would have messed with me for sure. It took them two weeks to give me my document despite my "family emergency" but at least I got it back in time.

Now back to the exam:

As of May 2008, SRE didn't publish potential exam questions. A basic knowledge of the history of Mexico is required for citizenship. The law also states that naturalized citizens must assimilate into Mexican culture and society and in order to do these things, knowledge of Spanish is imperative.

The letter from SER suggested that I study a 5th or 6th grade history textbook, which I did. The test consists of five questions. In order to pass, the applicant must answer four out of the five questions correctly. Applicants are given six attempts at this exam and if they fail all of them, then they must start the application process over. (Remember, applicants have already paid the fee to the Mexican government even before applying.)

I was desperate to pass because I did not want to make repeated trips and have this citizenship ordeal hanging over my head. So I read in Spanish and I read in English all about Mexican history. During many a Google search in English I was unsuccessful at finding what the test questions might be. Then I searched in Spanish and found the information that enabled me to study most effectively.

The website that I stumbled on was a comment section within an unofficial immigration law website that has since disappeared (I'm not joking). Posters were including actual test questions that they were given when they applied for citizenship at SRE in Mexico City and in state capitals. I saw several questions repeated over and again. Some of the SRE offices gave extremely difficult questions. It was obvious that they didn't want to see applicants pass the exam.

At first I went into panic mode because of the difficulty of the questions. But then I copied and pasted the entire thread into a word document. I went over the entire thing deleting questions that were repeated and answering questions that were unanswered. The exam was obviously not only about Mexican history but it also covered geography and culture—as in T.V., current events, and music. Here are examples of some of the more memorable questions-

  • Who is the legitimate president of Mexico?
  • In which year was IMSS [Mexico's Social Security] established?
  • Who was Mexico's first female medical doctor?
  • Who played the character of Cantinflas? (Mexico's version of Charlie Chaplin, same era)
  • Where are the sweet potato guys, the strawberry-ers the cactus people and the sausage makers from?[These are Mexican regional nicknames]

In the final 36 hours of studying I simply memorized the questions and answers. My Mexican friends and family were amazed at how much trivial information about their country I could recite that they could not. I studied non-stop, even on the bus all the way to my state capital city. Just in case, I programmed a few answers to questions that I couldn't remember into my Blackberry so that I could refer to them during the exam.

I was ready to cheat. But the official never gave me the chance as he sat right in front of me and chatted on his cell phone the entire time I took the exam. I knew the answers to four of the questions right off the bat, but I answered the fifth incorrectly. However upon grading, the official, with a frown on his face, informed me that I had passed. So he accepted the documents and my payment form along with the passing exam.

Again I received no receipt. I left without proof that I had even been there at all. Let alone studied so hard to jump through yet another hoop they had put in front of me.

(Since I have taken the exam a study guide with 101 potential test questions [PDF] has been published. Now applicants can more easily prepare for this exam. I did not have this luxury.)

Fast forward to November 2008: I was still waiting. SRE offered no help even when I was able to get through to them to ask. The office in Mexico City no longer answered their phones and they did not respond to e-mail. They were trying very hard to discourage me so that I would just drop the entire matter.

But I was persistent. I have a family and our business is in the tourism industry, which is suffering along with the economy. I have been offered other jobs that would enable me to provide for my family at a time. But for a legal foreign resident in Mexico, getting a new job is no easy task.

A foreign visa holder who wants to take a new position with an employer must do the following: submit his work visa and copies; submit his passport and copies; provide proof of where he lives; provide a letter of the job offer from the employer and his acceptance letter; and provide his credentials (university degrees) translated into Spanish. In addition to this, the employer must submit their tax registration documents and last tax payments, and a list of their Mexican employees receiving government benefits as per the law.

Only then do then does Immigration consider allowing the foreign visa holder to take a new position.

Permission is granted only after it is proven that the foreigner is in the country legally and not is not replacing or being given priority over an equally qualified Mexican applicant.

What a concept!

In Mexico there is a federal labor law (called Ley Federal del Trabajo) that states there must be nine Mexican employees for every one foreign employee. As a small business owner, I could tell many hair-raising stories about how the Mexican federal work law negatively affects the growth of the Mexican economy and is especially predatory toward foreign employers, but that's another article altogether.

In early February 2008 my citizenship application was sent to Immigration's head office in D.F. so that they could compare it with what they had on file and then submit their opinion to SRE. They did not submit an opinion. My application went into limbo. I had by then resided in Mexico legally for ten years, created dozens of jobs, paid significant taxes, with both my kids in elementary school. But Immigration still had no opinion.

After many weeks, phone calls, e-mails, and tooth pulling, I got things moving with information from a website posted by the Mexican government. It explained that I had defendable rights if I completed all of the obligatory requirements and the government had not properly acted. After many e-mail messages to this website, I finally tried the toll free 800 number. That worked—and it cost me nothing but time. After calling this help line several times a day, I started to make progress.

When it was finally determined that my application was held up at Immigration, I found out that was in charge there. I explained my case to him and he was very sympathetic. Three weeks later he sent a favorable opinion on my case to SRE. That happened right before the Christmas holidays.

This now brings us to the New Year—2009. After many, many more frustrating phone calls in the hopes of moving things along, I made yet another call to SRE in Mexico City early last week. I was pleasantly surprised when, as I started to give my full name in order to leave a message, the woman on the phone completed my name. Then she said: "Your citizenship letter has been signed and forwarded, congratulations you're a Mexican citizen now".

Currently my new citizenship documents are sitting in our capital city ready to pick up. I expect to go for them next week. This week is carnival, which means it is very busy there right now.

So this makes me a dual Mexican and American citizen. I hereby refer to myself as an American-Mexican mom.

American-Mexican Mom (email her) lives with somewhere in Mexico with her Mexican husband and two children.

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