Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kenya is ... Hell

Kenya needs help. I just talked to my family not too long ago to find out how things are going. I had been refraining from doing that for fear of hearing the worst, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

Two Members of Parliament from the Opposition Party were killed within days of each other. One of them was caused by the police and the other, the police are calling it "murder," but the opposition is calling it an attempt by the government to reduce their number in the parliament.

The situation is so tense there. I remember when there was some tension in 1992 and 1997. Houses were burnt then and people were shot with arrows. There was not so much hacking and stoning since every tribe was against the other. Now, all the tribes are against the kikuyu, the president's tribe. The kikuyus are now retaliating against the kalenjin, the luo and the luhya who are the large supporters of the opposition.

A patient, with an arrow lodged in his head, awaits treatment at a hospital in Kenya. (Picture Courtesy of Reuters)

The one place that hasnt seen such chaos is Kitale. Thats where my parents live. I dont know how long this will last. It seems as though the calm there is due to the fact that there is a mixture of almost all the tribes. There is not a place with one-tribe concentration ... that is a stretch though because concentration is a relative term.

Eldoret is a different case. That is where one MP got killed today. My grandmother and my extended family live around there. I wasnt too far from the 1997 chaos. But I hear that was nothing compared to what is going on now.

More Photos

Boundary of the United States of America and Limite de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Ever noticed how other countries have signs that say "Please come again" or "Thank you for visiting" or "Country X welcomes you?" Yea, I didnt see that when I left America, when I came back, then left again, then came back ... they dont care whether you leave or not, but they will try to keep you out! (Picture Courtesy of Thao Nguyen)

I had never seen Mexican Homer. I was so excited that I really wanted to watch The Simpsons in Spanish. When I got a chance, they had regular Homer who was talking in Spanish. I understood nothing even though they had English captions. That wasnt as exciting as I expected. The Mexican Homer does not sound anything like the Homer I know. He didnt even say "doh!" unless there is a Spanish version of that?

Flying over Dallas Fort Worth at night. I tried to take a picture and got this ...

So I took a video.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Visa Photos

Here are some photos of my visas. I promised I was going to post them.

This is my old F-1 student visa. It expired in 2005, but since I maintained my student status, the expiry date did not matter. You have to renew your visa when you leave the country and need to re-enter. You also need to go out of the country to renew your visa. Some people have been asking me why I couldnt just go to Washington DC and renew it. That is not the case.

In this blog ((Barely) Coming to America ...), I did mention that my visa was "CANCELLED WITHOUT PREJUDICE" as you can see in the picture above. I also mentioned that they had the wrong cancellation date of Jan 08, 2007 instead of Jan 08, 2008! That indicated that I had been in the country illegally for one year! It is probably going to give me some problems in the future too.

Here is my new F-1 student visa that the US consulate at Ciudad Juarez issued me. Notice how it says I am from "Baltimote, MD." It sounds like a cool city, but I think I'd rather just be in Baltimore. I hope this doesnt give me problems in the future. Also, notice that it is only valid for two years as opposed to my old visa above which was valid for five years.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Am I back?

Alvaro was 15 minutes late! I wasnt in a hurry, but the wait seemed a little too long. The trip to Zaragoza Bridge wasnt unique except the meter in Alvaro's taxi read $32.xx. That is the most I have ever paid for a taxi and the knowledge that I had to pay that same amount on my way back was ... well, lets just leave it at that.

I have stopped expecting people at the DHS to be nice or even anywhere near that. The first officer that called me to the window was really nice, but then he had to leave for a shift elsewhere. The guy that came in after him was from another world. I forgot to get a copy of my parole/deferred inspection Form I-546 and had gotten an OK to get a copy from the first officer. The guy that came after he left for his shift did not even want to listen to why I needed a copy, but atleast he gave me my passport back. He then said, "You know you cant come back without a visa, right?"

Thao was with me, so we called Alvaro from the other side of the Zaragosa Port of Entry. He showed up some 10 minutes later and drove us to the US Consulate in Juarez. It was quite far judging by $$$ displayed on the meter. Well, I was also anxious to get there and get things over with.

Since I had done this before, it was easy finding my way to the non-immigrant visa section. I was in there for less than 15 minutes. They gave me a green piece of paper that told me to come back at 2:00pm. It was about 10:45am. By the time I came out, Thao was gone for a walk or something and was going to show up some 45 minutes later as we had agreed.

I decided to take a walk ... there was not much to see around the Consulate. I had seen everything three weeks ago. So I came back to wait for Thao. Soon, she showed up and we decided to look for a place to eat. Some guy pointed a general direction to "The Mall." It turned out to be some strip mall and it wasnt what I expected.

Soon afterwards, we were sitting in some place eating a burrito. I have eaten burritos for five days straight now ... I am maxed out.

At 1:45pm, I was standing at the Consulate's gate. The security guard turned me away and told me to come at 2:00pm. So I crossed the street and waited from the opposite side. At 1:57pm, I was standing at the gate again. He had closed the gate as there was no one waiting there anymore. So he signaled me in, but I waited until he came a slid the gate to the side. I didnt want to do that.

Some 3 minutes later, I had my passport back with a two-year visa and my Form I-20 attached to it. The wait is over. I have my "student status" documents back!

I am currently editing photos of these documents and will post them soon.

Headed to Mexico, Again!

Last week, I was told that my visa is ready for printing. I made my way here last night from Baltimore. My trip here was uneventful. I decided to stay close to the El Paso International airport because the hotels here are significantly cheaper than those that showed up in my search in Juarez. Who knew?

It is about 7:25am local time and I am getting ready to eat breakfast. I also called up a taxi cab driver that gave me a"tour" of El Paso the last time I was here. His name is Alvaro, and I thought he was really nice. When I called him last night to ask him for a ride to the Zaragoza Bridge, where my passport is (hopefully), he hinted that we could also strike a deal and have him drive me to the US Consulate at Juarez.

My friend Thao Nguyen, a photojournalist, wanted to document my trip there and she is tagging along.

More updates later.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kenya Headed to Peace?

Violence-Stopping Hand Shake? President Mwai Kibaki (C) and Opposition Leader Raila Odinga (R) shake hands as former U.N boss Koffi Annan (L) looks on. (Photo Courtesy of NYTimes)

The two opposing parties met for the first time since the start of violence in Kenya. Albeit it seems the details of their meeting that was spearheaded by former U.N. secretaty general Koffi Annan were not fully released, rumor has it that there is a potential power sharing deal being brokered. This is promising. Hopefully this spells an end to the political tumult and senseless killing of civilians.


It is 12:21pm Eastern Standard Time. I just got off the phone with the Chief of the non-immigrant visa section at Ciudad Juarez general consulate. He said, "Hi [Kip], just wanted to let you know your visa is ready to print. Just come in whenever and we will process it for you the same day." He preferred that I go there on Monday January 28, 2008. It is all done! I will celebrate.

Oh, I just got an email too. It reads

"[Kip] --
Your visa is ready for printing. Please let us know when you will come back to Ciudad Juarez.

You all have been awesome! Thanks.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Here is what you need for your F-1(student) visa renewal

If you are an international student planning on renewing your visa, I suggest you do it at your home country unless you really have to go to Canada or Mexico. I have come to understand why there are so many illegal immigrants in the US. If someone who is here legally goes through such process as the one I am going through, imagine what someone who is here illegally goes through? I don’t even want to imagine. It is impossible.

In any case, when you show up at a US consulate for a student, F-1, visa renewal, make sure that you have the following documents. Present what they asked you to bring along, but keep the rest handy, just in case …

(Consult with your school’s office of international students if you have any questions, I am not a professional in this field and that means you cant hold me responsible for any mishaps)

- All original Form I-20's that you've ever held including an endorsed current Form I-20
- Original Travel and Departure Record Form I-94
- Passport(s) old and new with all visas you've ever held
- Proof of solvency including a letter from the department that is funding you indicating you ability to pay tuition
- Letter from the head of your program indicating your status as a student
- Official transcripts and diplomas from all schools you have attended
- Letter from the registrar of your current school indicating your student status
- A copy of your resume
- Form I-688 (Employment Authorization Document -EAD) - even if it expired
- A list of references (about 4) from the US and your home country
- A short description of your research, if you are doing any. You could alternatively take a letter from your research adviser stating, in technical terms and Leyman's terms
- A copy of tax returns
- Visa application forms
- Your appointment letter (they wont let you in without this)
- Passport size photographs (check out the DHS website for specs.)

I found these webpages, among others, useful:

Deferred Inspection Extension

You probably know by now that my deferred inspection/parole expires on Friday. My goal today was to find out in person whether I could extend this since "the administrative processing" at Washington DC is taking for ever and it would be stupid to go back to Juarez now. I had been told by someone at the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) help center that it wasnt renewable in which case I would be Mexico-bound on Friday. I have even booked a flight. My Southwest flight leaves BWI airport at 8:45am Friday and I anticipate to be at the Zaragosa Port of Entry at 2:30pm on the same day.

As soon as I got to Baltimore last week, I scheduled an appointment with the DHS's immigration office to have my extension done. This was before I was told that the form could not be extended. I went there anyway, when I got there at 10:00am this morning, I was surprised to have to go through security check and such. I felt like I was in an airport or something. I didnt think they would have such a thing there, but I was wrong. I had my computer, camera, papers, pens, computer cables etc. Right in from of me, there was a sign that said "NO CAMERAS ALLOWED." I didnt think they would let me in while I was waiting in the line. As soon as I got to the front, the security officer asks "Do you have any guns or weapons?"
I said, "Excuse me?"
"Any guns or weapons sir?" She retorted
I answered "No."

She then asked me to put my bag through the x-ray, and go through the security check. I was hoping that they were not going to confiscate my camera. They didnt. Phew.

A few minutes later, I was standing in front to a DHS official. I have come to associate DHS with meanness. They are all mean people and I wasnt expecting any otherwise this time round. Our meeting lasted less than 45 seconds and she wouldnt even let me talk or ask anything. She said "We cant renew that. We dont deal with it. Go to the Customs and Border Patrol" When I tried to ask something, she cut in with "Sir, I told you." So, I left.

Last night, while trying to locate my passport, I happened to call the customs office at BWI Airport and had the number saved. So I redialed the number and talked to a customs agent on that end. He told me to head out there so he could look at my case. I was on my way within minutes and some 20 minutes later, I was walking towards the International Concourse E. It was empty. I learnt later that they dont get many international flights here which is a little odd.

In one of the walk ways, there was a green sign that said "US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)." The arrow on the sign pointed to the wall. It took me 5 minutes before I asked someone at Forex counter where the entrance was. Well, I made my move, entered the "camouflaged-door" only to find no one on the other side. So I waited until two officers showed up. One of them recognized me as we had gone back and forth on the phone for two days now. So he told me he would take my case. His name was Charganauf (or something like that). Definitely one of the nicest people I have ever interacted with in my life. He didnt understand why they gave me 14 days on my parole and why they never told me that I had an option of paying $500 and waive the entire process.

I wish everyone was like Officer Chargnauf but my brother used to tell me "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." I never understood what that meant then.

Officer Charganauf gave me a 30-day extension! I am here legally until February 24, 2008 or until I go get my visa.

On my way home, I called the Chief of the non-immigrant visa (NIV) section at the Juazes consulate as I had promised him that I would give him an update. He was happy that they did this without having to call him. He had told me that if there was any problem, that the CPB should call him for an explanation. He also said he would call me as soon as he hears from Wshington, DC and he hopes that would be sometime tomorrow.

I could be headed to Juarez next week.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Update - Janurary 22, 2008

Tuesday January 22, 2008

You wont believe it. I am still trying to understand it myself ...

What started out as an awesome day (I even said I was elated) spiraled down to a really intricately complicated day. I dont want to call it awful yet, I still have six hours before it ends and I am having dinner with some friends later today.

I got up late because I went to bed later than usual. I decided to go for a quick five mile run just to get things started on the right note. That ended well in spite of not having run for about two weeks. As soon as I got to school, I knew I had to make some calls to the US consulate and senator John Sarbanes office. I was advised that it was a good idea to involve my senator in this case as they have expertise and experience regarding such cases. I have to say it was a great idea as Meg Stephenson who is involved in my case is on top of things in addition to being really nice and personable. Senator Sarbane's staff's got my back.

The call to the consulate was interesting. First of all, they have a US number and a Mexican number. The first several rounds, I called the US number and the response I got was "The person you are trying to reach is not available ...." I am not kidding, I tripple checked the number and I got the same response. Then I tried the Mexican number. It wouldn't give me the secondary dial tone after I entered the numbers. Well, I figured that since yesterday was Martin Luther King day, they must have messed up when they tried to switch their "The Consulate is Closed" message that they had running. I waited some 30-45 minutes and tried again. It went through! The first thing it asks you is to select #1 for English and something for Spanish. So I selected #1 and waited while the call was transfered. Then came this "Bueno!" I said "Hello?, I thought I pressed #1 for English?" So she switched to English and everything went well after that. I asked to speak to the Chief of the NIV (Non-Immigrant Visa) section because he is the one that wrote me the letter which got me into the US on parole. It turns out he was at a meeting. So I had to explain my case to the person at the other end. I had been put on hold several times and had to explain my case anew every time someone else picked up the phone. Eventually, they looked at my file and the reponse was "Your case is still pending."

I ended up leaving a message for the NIV section chief and asked him to call me. Within some 45 minutes, my phone rang and there was some weird number -52-656-XXXXXXX. I picked it up.
He said "Hi John ..." and continued to tell me how my case was still pending and how they had not heard from Washington DC (whoever this person is?). He said they might not hear from them till next week or something.

I then explained to him why I called. I told him how my permit expires in two days and have to go back to El Paso, Texas, else I risk breaking the law. I also told him how they had retained my passport with the canceled visa and my Form I-94 departure record and how I couldnt really go anywhere without those documents. After hearing me out, he told me he would make a few calls and call me later today to let me know about the situation.

That sounded promising to me. I went ahead and called Meg Stephenson at the Senator's office to update her on the situation. I had promised that I was going to do this just so we can be on the same page. I also went to update the chairman of The Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences here at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I had told him about my situation, so it was a matter of just filling him in on what I had been told.

The one very important thing I picked up was, Johns Hopkins would expel me if I broke any federal law or something to that effect! Hmmm ... that ruled out staying here illegally, not that I was planning to. This threw everyone into a frenzy. My options were to extend my parole/defered inspection and worry about other things later or go to Mexico and not worry about the parole expiring and thus breaking a law.

Everything seemed to have stalled after that. There wasnt anything I could really do until I got a call from the NIV Section Chief in Juarez! This would give me a chance to make a good decision based on his advise.

"Hi John ..." he said "... I just wanted to give you an update." He proceeded to tell me he had talked to Meg Stephenson from Senator Sarbanes office. He had also called Washington DC and the Customs and Border Patrol at the Zaragosa Bridge (the people holding my passport). I learnt that the processing at Washington DC was not done but they told him that my clearance was expected to happen this Thursday.

Then came the part that made the day worse. He said that the Border Patrol was sending my passport to the Airport. I was furious! Why were they sending my passport to the airport? What airport? To whom? When did they send it? Its one thing to have your passport retained at the Port of entry but it is another totally different thing to have it send to some airport. If this happened, it would mean that I would have to stay in Baltimore regardless of whether my Form I-546 was expiring, renewable or not. Staying in the US illegally for me means I would get expelled from school and would probably have trouble when applying for permanent residency in the future. Going to the border or the consulate without a passport is like going hunting without spears or a bow and arrows or hunting clubs (my tribe never uses guns for hunting). You cant go there empty handed, where would they stamp your visa then?

I decided that I was officially screwed. I didnt think this was one of the worst that could happen. But there it was. On my way home, I thought about calling the Border Patrol in Zaragoza Bridge to ask why, where, when and how this was happening. It was 6:00pm Eastern time, they Patrol Office closes at 5:00pm Pacific time. That meant I still had an hour to spare. I pulled up to the side of the road and called. I got in touch with the supervisor on duty who happened to be handling my case down there. I was relieved when he told me that he had not send the passport out but had scheduled it to be picked up by FEdex later. After finding out why they were sending it to Baltimore/Washington International Airport, I explained to him why they needed to retain my passport there until I went to pick it up. He agreed to retain it, but told me they didnt have jurisdiction over me as my address was in Baltimore.

I safely drove home and made it to dinner at Mt Washington Tavern at 7:30pm where some 20 or so of my friends showed up. Where were you?

My permit expires Friday. Am I going to Mexico then? I will post an update later today/tomorrow.

Updates Coming Your Way Soon

Hold on tight!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Seeking ways to Help the World's Poorest

I came along this article "Seeking Ways to Help the Worlds Poorest" in NYTimes today. Dr. Amy Smith, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is putting together this summit geared at inventing and innovating new and cheaper ways to solve problems faced by the poor. One of last year's summit's invention was a drinking straw that filters water as you drink from it as shown in the picture below (courtesy of NYTimes).

This summit, The International Development Design Summit (IDDS), is calling for professionals from all fields; chemists, biologists, farmers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc to bring their ideas. Do you have any suggestions? Do you want to participate? It is a week-long event in the summer.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Kenyan Police Shoots Unarmed Civilians

I dont even know what to say about this. Crimes against humanity for sure. Why does our leader have a shoot-to-kill policy going on when people are just expressing their dissatisfaction?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

F-1 Visa Renewal: Here is a list of what you need.

Hopefully, I will complete this list soon. Check back.

The End is Near.

This is not for the faintest of hearts. Read no further if you want nothing graphic. You have been warned. It is the reality though.

I have less than eight days before the date on my Form I-546 passes. Although I am thinking positive, I think it is a human thing to think of the worst that could happen. I have given myself a 20% chance that my visa will be renewed. Come on, I am male, I fit the definition of a "potential disaster" (refer to this blog if you doubt this or this DHS advisory if you think I am kidding), I am poor, I have an accent .... The odds are against me. This country wants no more of me!

Sometimes, I feel like I am documenting by own demise here. Think about it for a second. I am sure most of you know that the situation in my beloved motherland, Kenya, is despicable. People are fighting people. They have all forgotten that they breath the same oxygen and that they all bleed red. They are right, and I support them, about fighting for justice, but there are a million ways of solving such problems. The common man is suffering, while the culprits are being whisked in their six-figure cars (Kenya Shillings) to safety every time there is a fracas. But they have let themselves be convinced that they are defined by their tribal lineages. Sad.

Assuming they dont renew my visa, there is a 95% chance I will be Kenya bound. My family is split between the outskirts of Eldoret and Kitale. In Eldoret, every other house has been burnt and every kikuyu tribe member evicted. My brother told me of how this kikuyu man that I know from my childhood was shot with some nine arrows on his back and his house burnt. This man was mentally challenged and I suppose couldn't escape fast enough. Killing someone is unacceptable in my world, regardless of what tribe, race, gender, sexual orientation, age ... you name it, they belong.

I have come to a realization that this is where I might be headed. It is going to be an early trip since I have one planned not too long from now (I wont say when as it is going to be a surprise to my family). Heck, if I go next week, it is going to be a surprise to me and to them. I am excited in that sense, but I can see myself being slightly friendly to every Kenyan and have my tail shot or stoned or whacked or ... speared. My family did not instill tribalism in me, I guess that is why their village is safe and people are saner.

I am prepared though. Maybe I should say I am preparing. I have made the necessary changes. I am packing up my stuff, not that I am going to take them, but I am just trying to make it easier for my friends when they come to pick it up. I am yet to talk to my land lord, but I dont need to do that as I have talked to my room mate. I talked to my adviser, but she brushed this off and so did my lab mates. Maybe its because I never keep a straight face when telling reality? I am no actor ... but I know I am always smiling and happy. Except when I had iron deficiency. I remember, one time I got in trouble for smiling at some guy. I was about 10. This guy almost beat me up and I had no idea why. I learnt later that he was furious because he thought I was laughing at him after falling off his bike. I had no idea he had fallen off his bike.

Why would anyone (who kills children, as young and innocent as these above, who dont even speak any dialect and care less about politics) care about some random Kenyan in his 20's with education from America? Why, in the first place, are we watching while this is happening?

There is also a chance I will be back.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Say you were in my shoes ....

Say you were in my shoes and you know you have these options:

1) Your visa renewal is pending and they expect (not a guarantee) to renew it in which case, you will be able to enter the US without any problems (assuming they dont turn you back at the Port of Entry). In addition to that, you know you have to spend some US $500 (if your visa is renewed) to go to Mexico or more like US $3000 (if your visa is not renewed and you have to go home from there).

2) You are in the US on parole for 14 days. You know that you must go back to Mexico to have your case reviewed as stated in #1 above. Now, you know that if you dont make a show after 14 days, those immigration people will be hunting you down so they can deport your tail back to where it came from. The cost to you is $0 in this case.

The question is would you spend the $3000 or risk it and go for $0? Look on the right side of this page, Vote! Thanks

By the way, for those who are not sure of my location, I am in Baltimore, MD ... temporarily.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

On why I went to Mexico and not Canada

Many people have asked why I went to Mexico to renew my F-1 visa when I could have gone to Canada or Kenya or Austria (I have a friend there) or anywhere else.

Well, here are my reasons for going to Mexico:

- If you know me, you know that I consider anything below 60 degrees Fahrenheit cold. Why would I go to Canada or anywhere North when I can head South and accomplish the same in a much warmer weather? Mexico wins.

- You need a visa to enter Canada or Mexico, especially if you anticipate that your US visa will be canceled. US Visa cancellation will render you illegal in either Mexico or Canada, but if you have a visa to either country, you are good (I think). Canadian visas go for C$75 while Mexican visas go for ~US $20 or $0 if you dont get one! Mexico wins!

- I had a free flight to anywhere in the US. To go to Toronto or Montreal, I would have needed to fly to Buffalo, NY then rent a car and drive across the border for at least three hours to get to where I wanted to go ... To go to Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, All I needed to do was, fly to the adjacent US city (El Paso) then WALK ACROSS THE BORDER. 20 minutes, $0 ... no rental car. Mexico wins!

- To get a visa, you need to set up an appointment, electronically or by Phone. I couldn't get one in Canada but I had many options in Mexico. Mexico wins!

- Why did I need to renew my visa in the first place? Thats another long story. You will understand why sometime soon. But the point is, I had to ... and there is no way I could have avoided this situation as it was bound to happen sooner or later.

To My Friends,

Thank you for your support. Thank you for your emails, your phone calls, your encouraging words and your blog comments. Thank you for sharing this experience with me.

[Barely] Coming to America …

I got up bright and early anticipating that the process at the Cordova Bridge Port of Entry was going to be a long one. But I was thinking 2hrs to 2.5 hrs tops.

It is/has been a pleasant morning, in spite of the 35 degree cold.

I am currently at the Cordova Bridge Port of Entry. It has been exactly 4hrs and I don’t think the end is near. Although, from what they have done so far, it seems to me that things are in their final stages, but I have been wrong so many times and this could just be one of those.

Let’s step back a bit to that bright-and-early-waking-up thing. It was 6:30am, so I gave myself about 1.5hrs to pack up everything I had (that was quick!), eat breakfast, check my email (for the last time this week in Mexico, hopefully) and check out of Hoteles Colonial. By 8:05am, my cab was outside (yea, I didn’t want to walk to the bridge this time round).

I walk out of the hotel and the first thing I ask is “How much to the Bridge?”
The cab driver says “Ocho
So I repeat what I THOUGHT he said, “Five?” making sure to lift my palm so he could see what I meant.
He blurts back “Si!”

So I hop in and he drives me to the border bridge. It took about 8 minutes or so. I didn’t have any change and only had USD 23.11. I hand him the $20 bill and he says “No change?” After answering no, he goes outside and comes back with change and hands me $12.

“I thought you said $5?”

He answers “No, ocho.” Right then, I realized my mistake and I said “F**K!” He obviously thought I was nuts … I don’t blame him. I wasn’t trying to haggle or anything. Had I realized earlier, I would have, but I’ll never forget what ocho means. I am not promising anything though. My memory is on strike, I think.

Anyway, I then headed to cross the bridge to an awaiting line at the Port of Entry. Some 10 minutes later, I was at the front of line, all my paper work at hand. This included, a letter from the Chief of the NIV section at the Juarez consulate, a sealed envelop from the consulate, my Passport (with my expired, cancelled visa), all my I-20s, I-94, letter from my program director, letter from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Registrar, my resume and a brief hand written description of my research that they made me do at the consulate. The officer at the gate calls me. As soon as I got there, I handed her all my paperwork.

She looks at them and says “This is going to be complicated” and takes me to Window 10 of the Permits/Permisos Section. Behind the window was this officer Williams, whom, as I learnt later, had only been at the Port for a week. In my mind I was thinking, “It sure is going to be complicated.” I think she read my mind … she smiled at me.

Let me digress a bit and bring to your attention a few things that you, the reader, need to know to understand what is coming next.

- If you read my very first blog, you will realize that somewhere, I mentioned that my visa was stamped “CANCELLED WITHOUT PREJUDICE” and the date on the stamp was “Jan 08, 2007.” Please, will you curse with me or for me at this point if you can?

- Foreign students in the US can travel to and from Canada and/or Mexico on expired visas as long as they have maintained their “student status” and that their Forms I-20 and I-94 are not expired. Ideally, I could have come to Juarez to visit and gone back to the US without any problem. As soon as your visa is cancelled though, your I-94 is invalid and useless!

- Cordova Bridge Port of Entry seldom receives cases like mine. Normally, people get caught in such situations at their home countries and usually, they wait for everything to take its own course. They are so rare, and since Officer Williams was one week old here … you get the point.

Back to the story: Officer Williams then signals one of the other officers behind the counter. I later learnt his name was Vasquez. At this point, I can overhear them saying “Why did they send him here …” Why did they cancel the visa before doing the administrative processing” “bla bla bla.” I zoned out. A moment later, Officer Vasquez comes to the window and says. “John (I hate that!), where were you before coming here?” I told him. The he proceeds “How comes your visa was cancelled in Jan. 08, 2007?” I didn’t swear at this point. I mean, how many more things can go wrong before you have to expect them? Well, I explained why, painstakingly. Officer Vasquez was very understanding and agreed that I had not been in the US illegally. This actually helped me out a little bit. It showed a little bit in incompetence at the consulate and helped explained some of the questions they had.

Things went smoothly after that. They called me in did some fingerprinting and some picture taking. Then, Vasquez tells Williams “Why don’t you check his bags to make sure he doesn’t have any bombs.” Ok, let me tell you something. Officer Williams is HOT, very beautiful and about my age. I was hoping that they would just x-ray screen my bags. Come on, I had worn my clothes more than the doctor-recommended times and it did not smell good in there. I also had my running shoes. Those smell AWFUL by default. Officer Williams, I could tell, realized this and didn’t really go through my luggage as she was supposed to. Oh well ….

They took me to a private “INTER” room with immobile chairs equipped with cuffs about an hour after the start of the whole process. Yea, I wasn’t scared … they had exhausted my “scared resources.” For the next 2.5hrs, they did paperwork. It turns out, Officer Williams was still undergoing training and this was one of the special cases. I was taking notes at this point, but that only lasted for the initial 30 minutes. They left the room, they came back, they talked, they asked, they yawned, they talked, they laughed … I was just sitting there. I learnt a lot and even asked them if they could hire me. Then I thought, oh crap! My flight is at 11:20am! I said that loud. It was 10:55am and the airport is some 20 minutes away. I asked to use their phone, they let me … I changed my flight, the 8th time and then the 9th time followed soon after.

All this time Officers are walking in, asking questions and amazed at how unique my situation was. I was wearing my Boston Marathon jacket. Since my passport said Republic of Kenya, I made some friends. At one point, one officer came in and asked “Do you run?” I said “Yea.” He then followed that with “Me too!” And I continued “Yea?” He said “Yea, to the buffet and back!” He was funny. I was really comfortable after all this that I was actually asking questions, some which even seemed personal, now that I think about it. I learnt that Vasquez had been in the military and thought the entire system, immigration, sucked. Williams had been a teacher prior to her current job etc etc. I also learnt that they were letting me under section I-546. That I had an A-file opened. And all these fell on Section 212i (7)/border patrol section 274 law. I have no idea what these mean, but I have them scribbled down … so I have to write them here.

Three and a half hours later, they take me out so they can do more paperwork and verifications. This included more fingerprinting and pictures, as though the ones they had already taken were insufficient. They then ask me to wait while they complete the process.

Oh, they just called my name. I forgot to tell you I was typing this while waiting.

I am at the El Paso international airport for the section below … there is nothing international about El Paso airport, except me!

Soon after they handed me a paper to sign, verifying my fingerprints, they hand me another form. This form is called I-546, hence the name of the entire process. This form is a replacement for my passport and visa that they are going to keep. It is my permit for entry to the US. But it’s valid for only 14 days. It is a piece of paper … and on it, is a stapled new I-94 form. Its headline reads “Order to Appear Deferred Inspection.” Under it, as it is “ … YOU ARE ORDERED TO APPEAR IN PERSON AT THE BELOW INDICATED ADDRESS ON THE DATE AND TIME INDICATED … FAILURE [TO DO SO] MAY RESULT IN YOUR BEING TAKEN INTO CUSTODY … your pass port has been retained …”

I am ordered to appear at a totally different Port of Entry here in Texas, El Paso area, regardless of whether the consular calls me or not. They said there is a possibility that they will allow me extend it at a near immigrations office if the consular doesn’t call me.

I am tired of writing. My flight is supposed to be departing at 4:10pm local time. It is 3:50pm and I don’t see anything happening soon. Maybe there is another story cooking, that I can tell later.

In the meanwhile, tune in for beginning of part II of Kipitos Mexican adventure. Something is bound to happen within the next 14 days.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

F-1 Application Status

"[Kip] I have good news and bad news ..." The Chief of the Non-Immigrant Visa Unit said. My heart was literally somewhere in my throat at the end of that sentence. He handed me my passport, I looked and there was no Visa renewed. He then handed me all my other documents, I-20, Letters from my school and my program director, transcripts and a diploma from Syracuse and another form explaining why I did not get the F-1 visa renewed. Of course he was talking to me while all this was going on. Whether I was listening or not is the question.

"The bad news is ... we are unable to renew your visa today." He continued. "We are still conducting some additional administrative processing ... and this may take up to two weeks. The good news is, we expect to renew your F-1 visa ..." I didnt hear what he said after that as I was busy taking a deep breath to reset my heartbeat and push that four-valved organ back to its place.

Then he said, "Here are your options. You can stay here in Juarez and wait or (I was waiting for 'You can go back to Kenya') you can go back to Baltimore on parole." I didnt care what all that meant, so I immediately said "I want to go back." So he told me to wait while he wrote a letter to the officials at the port of entry.

See this US Center for Immigration Services (USCIS) section that explains Emergency Travel. Scroll down to Advance Parole or Re-entry Permit or Humanitarian Parole.

The letter reads "This [is] to inform you that Kenyan nation [my full names and DOB] has applied at the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to renew his F-1 student visa." It then continues " ... we are conducting additional processing that will take up to two weeks. ... we expect to issue an F-1 ..."

The rest is not relevant. Basically, I can "come back to the US" but they will call me after this routine is done so I can come get my visa. Coming back there is another story since I still have to be scrutinized at the port of entry. The USCIS states clearly that "Admission into the U.S. is not guaranteed. In all cases, the alien is still subject to immigration inspection at a port of entry to determine whether the alien is admissible into the country."

Maybe I will see you, maybe I wont. But now that I have all my documents, I think I should check out Juarez.

Before I venture though, I need to change my flight back to Charm City. This will be the 7th time I am changing my flight. Please fly Southwest next time for me? Awesome.

Kip >>>> Kipito

Ahora, si usted cree que yo no podía pasar por un mexicano, que está equivocado. Estoy aprendiendo el idioma mucho más rápido de lo que esperaba, y como resulta, ya estoy delante del juego con respecto a los códigos de vestimenta. Así que, mi amigo, sentarse y ver cómo transformar a mí mismo Juan Kipito. Tenga un buen día.

For those of you who barely understood that, here is a translation for you ...

Now, if you didnt think I could pass for a Mexican, you are mistaken. I am learning the language much faster than I expected and as it turns out, I am already ahead of the game regarding dress-codes. So, my friend, sit back and watch how I transform myself to Kipito. Have a good day.

oh google!

Federal Government Definitions

In light of everything that is going on, I thought I should probably post a Fedectionary. What do they really mean by that?

Wait times (Refers only to F-1 Visa Renewal Application - Thanks to "Joe" for these definitions)

Regular Time - 4-6 weeks
Sort of Expedited - 1-2 weeks
Expedited - Up to a week
Really Expedited - 0-2 days

Refer to Department of Homeland Security ( for the following definitions

Biochemistry, Biology, Synthesis, chemistry, anti-microbials, anti-biotics, therapeautics, drugs, cell biology, molecular biology, among many others fall in the category they define as Chemical, Biological, radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) materials (see the link above). What do they really mean? Potential Terrotist!

My graduate program at The Johns Hopkins University SOM is Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB). My thesis work, in brief terms, involves the SYNTHESIS of a new class of ANTI-BIOTICS (or ANTI-MICROBIALS/THERAPEAUTICS). How many more buzz words do they need?

You cannot really blame anyone for trying to proactively defend their country, can you? If anything, this should give everyone a sense of safety ...

Since we are on definitions, let me define myself because I can!

I am a pessimistic optimist. What do I mean? Here is an example. I am going to the US consulate in about 4hrs from now. I am expecting the best (that I get my visa renewed and go back to Baltimore, MD), but I am also prepared for the worst (that I dont get my visa renewed and have to go back to Kenya). Where is the catch? Why would anyone define going home as "the worst?" Well, when you have some tribal conflict that has killed more than 600 people in a span of two weeks (with more that 250,000 displaced) and you belong to one of the tribes involved, then you really are left with one word to use: worst.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Is Juarez that bad?

Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008 ...

I did not have much planned today besides writing my thesis proposal and maybe going for a run here in Juarez. I really wanted to tour "Centro de Juarez" and see what the fuzz is all about. Well, on my way there, I see this sign that says "Hoteles [something]" and then below it in small font "Sencilla/Doble $ 320 M.N." I dont speak Spanish, but I can read numbers especially those beginning with $xxx! So I decide to stop by and see what they had to offer. No one spoke English there, but with miming and a piece of paper to write on, I figured they had rooms there that went for some $30/night! The downside? No internet, no breakfast, no security and the area did not look good. So I told them I would call them as soon as I made my decision ...

On my way out, this guy at the entrance says "Whaz up!", I was like "Yo!" and pretty soon we were conversing. I was excited to be talking to someone in English. Rafael has been here since Monday for some immigration related issues and he didnt know where downtown Juarez was. Since he was staying at the hotel, he asked me if I wanted to check out his room before I made my decision, although I already had. The room was nice actually with a double bed, kitchen, refrigerator, gas stove, living room ... but I dont think I wanted to compromise my safety over $$$.

I never made it to Centro de Juarez. Here is why ... While talking to Rafael, a cop car pulls up and two more police men show up in bikes with their radios loud as hell and they seemed to mean business. They exchange a few words with Rafael and after that they head across the street from where we were standing. So, out of curiosity, I ask Rafael what all that was about. He says "Oh, they are asking why we are standing here and whether we have any business here," so I asked what did you say? He answers "I said we are staying in this hotel ...." So I was like, why do they care? Rafael says he overheard in one of the radios that someone had called them that there was a "suspect" on that street ... Yea, that sealed my decision and ended my day right there.

I havent done much since I arrived to the hotel, which is only about half a mile from where Rafael and I were standing. Most importantly, I dont think I would have emailed my friend Joe today, had I not come back ... See the post below.

From 4-6 weeks to ...

... less than one day! All it took was a phone call from a friend to the US Consulate.

Back in the year 2000, I basically scored a running scholarship to Syracuse University. The details of how that happened and how everything fell into place then are not necessary here, albeit I have to admit, it is pretty damn interesting. Just ask someone who knows it. Lets leave that for some other time. Anyway, when I got to Syracuse, I did not compete for the XC and track team as much my freshman year, but when the time rolled around, I did so but performed decently given the training that I had then. By the time the second year came, I was starting to kick some tail.

Then, one spring night after the end of Outdoor track season in 2001-02 season, I received a call on my 315-442-xxxx apartment number. The caller said "Hi, may I speak to John Bitok please" (back then everyone called me John, be warned though, dont call me by that name) and after I told him I was the one on the phone, he proceeded to say "This is Joe Smith [names changed] from the US Department of Justice ...." I did not know how to swear much in English then, but I think such occasions are the only ones anyone is allowed to use the F-word really loud. I was terrified to say the least. Why would anyone from any institution or company or anything that started with US call me at my apartment number?

Turns out, Joe was an avid biker and wanted to put together a strong triathlon team to compete in some race that was coming up then. He wanted to know whether I was interested in being in his team. The idea was, I would do the last leg of the relay, that is, run a 5K. That happened to fit perfectly with my summer training and I agreed to be part of the team. Well, we won that race and then some more afterwards and became really good friends. Then one time, soon after I graduated from Syracuse University, I was looking for a permit to work as part of my Optional Practical Training (OPT). The permit application process goes through the Department of Homeland Security - the same agency that is holding me up in Mexico - and takes upto four months to process. I was late in applying for this since I had not planned on doing an OPT, but my friend told me that he could make some calls to expedite my process. I should probably clarify at this juncture that you have exactly one year of OPT and the countdown begins as soon as you graduate. Since I started authorization application processes late, I was bound to lose valuable work-time waiting for my permit.

Well, it took four days and I had my permit.
Joe, bailed me out! He is a good man. Awesome guy, and that doesn't even do justice in describing what type of person he is. I am greatly indebted to him.

Anyway, when this F-1 visa renewal saga came up, I thought I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. And I didnt, until I thought of my friend Joe. So, I send him an email explaining my situation and asked him to call me here in Mexico. Yes, there are not many people that I can be that open and frank to, then ask them to spend $1.50/min to call me so I can tell them whats going on with me ... Interesting huh? Well, he responded within an hour and called me not too long after that. After explaining to him what the deal was, allowing him to ask questions and finally giving him a telephone number I had, he promised to call the US Consulate here at Ciudad Juarez and see what was up. Shortly afterwards, he sent me a short email stating what had transpired and told me that he couldn't call as he had some work related thing. The email indicated a promising turn of events ...

An hour
later, the US Consulate called me and asked that I show up tomorrow, Thursday Jan, 10, 2008 at 2:00pm. Then the following email followed:

"Please come to the consulate at 3:00 PM tomorrow [Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008]. I will have an update on your case. I have been in touch with [Mr. Smith] regarding your situation, too. Please call me or email me if you have questions. My local phone number is ..."

Notice the discrepancy between the two times? In short, a process that would have taken 4-6 weeks has only taken about a day. Even though it is not guaranteed that my visa will be renewed (as F-1 is largely a discretionary visa), I know that I can ask for my documents back and think of my next move. I dont really have many options if my visa is not renewed, but you know what they say, east or west, home is best!

Lesson of the day: Why poke a beehive when you can have someone else do it?

It Could be Worse ... Really

Before you read this blog, you may want to click on this BBC News link, Cancer patient loses visa battle, and at least scan the story they have running there. I think the abstract of that story summarizes it all "A Ghanaian woman [Ama Sumani] who came to the UK five years ago and became a student is being flown back to the African country, despite being terminally ill." If worse were defined by a spectrum, my situation is definitely in the opposite end to hers. Ama's case is a matter of life and death whereas mine is about self fulfillment, that is, go back to school and finish what I started (or something along those lines). I could not imagine being in a situation like hers.

Not too long ago, I talked to a few friends via Google Chat and mentioned to them how I am running out of clothing to wear (I only brought enough to take me through 3 days + some running clothes), how I am getting a cold and there is no drugstore around and how my teeth hurt (dentists are bad people!). Soon afterwards, another friend sent me the link to Ama's story. My response, after reading the story was "I guess I should stop whining ...." Although I dont think I am whining, this story just put everything into a different perspective. It also helps shed light into how grave the situation can be anywhere else, not just in the US. I wonder how many more similar cases out there go unheard of ...

F-1 Visa Renewal Process

Let me give you a quick description of what F-1 Visa is and why it is a pain in my rear end right now. F-1 visa is basically a student's permit for entry into the United States. People visiting the US get different types of visas depending on what brings them/takes them to the USA. Depending on what nationality you are from, F1 visas are granted for different durations but they need not be renewed as long as the student does not leave the US and maintains his/her student status. Maintaining a student status involves full time enrollment at a US educational institution, ensuring that the form I-20 and the passport is valid and current. If any of these (among many others that I am sure I am not listing) expire, a student may find herself/himself "out of status." Being out of status may compromise a student's re-entry into the United States at a later time.

For more information regarding US Student Visas, visit:

(I assume these links expire after sometime, if you really need more information, just google it!)

Now that we got that out of the way. Let me take you through my tumultuous visa renewal application process which brought me from Baltimore, MD (USA) to Ciudad Juarez, CHH (Mexico). I hope that this will educate you international students in science departments so you will be better prepared when your time comes. I dont think there is any way I could have avoided what I went through as it was bound to come sometime.

I am really tired. It is 10:30pm local time, which means it is 12:30am US Eastern Standard time. I usually go to be at 9:00pm. So, I am going to post an email I send out earlier today with some edits. Here it is:

Alright, I dont know how to begin this but I know how to end it. WTF?!!?? I am stuck in Mexico for what they say could take 4-6 weeks!

I am sitting here in Ciudad Juarez's Hoteles Colonial in Mexico knowing well that I am not a legal citizen of any country right now. Or am I? I dont think my Maryland state drivers license will do me any good in this part of North America. On my way here, I happened to be in the same row with a guy who frequents Juarez and he told me horror stories ranging from how they got robbed by Mexicans to how they got robbed by Mexican police. In my mind, I was thinking, damn, Kenya is not that bad, but I know you wont believe me given whats going on there currently.

Anyway, my flight to El Paso was nothing unusual but I did notice that the "country of Texas" is as desolate as Sahara desert and only filled with a few shrubs here and there which looked funny from some 30,000 feet up. I arrived to dusty and windy El Paso at 1:20pm local time. I didnt want to pay US $50-60 to have a taxi take me across the border as I think that is ridiculous. So, I boarded a taxi from the airport to Cordova international bridge after I found out that you dont have to pay anything to cross by foot there and that my hotel was only some 2-3 miles away. I had the map of the area memorized well (and a hard copy in my pocket, just in case) and given the fact that I never got lost navigating on foot, I thought this was going to be easy. Well, that was until turned left on some road instead of turning right. I realized some 5 minutes later that I was headed nowhere and had to wait for some guys who was following me on foot too. I said "Holla!" and he replied in something I couldnt understand. I quickly realized that there was a myriad of words and sentences I didnt know between saying "Holla" and "mucho gracious." So I resolved to English, although I think Swahili would have been fine too as this guy spoke no English. I was only ~2miles away from the border! Well, I managed to say "hoteles colonial?" that didnt work "avenue de las americas?" and he said "Si!." Long story short, this guy, Alejandro, walked me to the hotel vicinity through some park/woods and wouldnt take a $200 pesos tip from me ... I figured I would have spent at least US $50 on a cab. So I said, "mucho gracious" and by that time, I had used up all my Spanish vocabulary. Hey, dont laugh at me, I speak six other languages!

Got to the hotel, got checked in, then went to Banamex bank to pay for my visa application fee (US consulate in Mexico accepts payments from Banamex bank, ONLY!). No one spoke English there, no surprise and I didnt really think I needed anyone who spoke English till they told me "only ATM" which I understood to be no credit cards. Yea, well, he meant cash only! $1,450 pesos! So I go to the ATM machine which was outside, every single button was in spanish ... after about 5 minutes trying to figure out what the heck was going on, I went back inside and said loudly (hopefully it wasnt annoying to anyone) "Anyone speak English here?" Well, there was a Jeremiah from Boise, ID, thank goodness. Some five minutes later, we find out that the ATM had no cash in it and neither was the one across the street!! I was running out of time at this point and had to act quick ... this is where running came in. With my limited vision, I saw HSBC from a distance (this was my former bank while at Syracuse). I ran there, got some $1500 pesos and everything after that was smooth!

I had not eaten for the whole day and wasnt thinking about this because I had other things occupying my mind. How and where I ended up eating is not pertinent here. But I have to say the burrito was good and salsa here it HOT! Also, Mexicans are awesome people. I guess kindness is a universal language.

That was Monday Jan. 7, 2008

Tuesday morning, I get up at 5:00am as I had been told that there was a shuttle from the hotel to the consulate at 6:00am and Jeremiah had warned me that the lines were long. Long is a relative term, but when you have over 1,000 people lining up, then long just means looooooooong! We got there a little after 6:00am (the consulate is a little over mile away) and alas! there were people who camped there and the line was already loooooong (realize I only used 6 o's this time?). I then proceed to the security guard who sends me to the back of the line since my appointment was at 8:00am and not 7:30am. Well, I didnt think it was a big deal. Six hours later, I was at the gate. The guy looks at my application and says "F1?" (thats a student visa) and I followed that with a "Yes." He then says "Wrong line" with his limited English. I felt like punching someone/something so hard, but they dont advice that here and he wasnt the one who had told me earlier to go to that line which was meant for immigrant visas (as opposed to non-immigrant visas of which my student visa, F1 falls in).

The process at building D was not that bad, only a few dozens of us were there and they were understanding of my showing up 2hrs late. My process was quick since it is a renewal and I got to my interview within 45mins. One thing that I realized was, they held on to my passport and application papers, but everyone still had theirs ... I have no idea what that meant and I dont want to speculate. But I'll say one of the things that they gave me said "Come back on Jan 9, at 2:00pm. This was a good sign and in my mind I was thinking "got it!." When they asked me what my thesis work in Biochemistry pertained, I said "we are designing a new class of anti-microbials." Well, "biochemistry", "chemistry", "molecular biology", "anti-microbials", "anti-biotics" and many others are apparently on the terror list! The odds were against me since I had all those in many letters that I got from my school and such ... So they gave me an additional form to fill which included, most importantly, a brief technical description of what I do. So I wrote and then drew some small molecules. I was as succinct as I could get. After this, they said they needed a copy of my resume, some references and a list of publications. I got those, thanks to quick actions of my advisor, Dr. Caren Meyers (YOU ARE AWESOME!) and got handed a paper that said (in brief) "This office is unable to conclude processing of your non-immigrant visa application ..." and continued " ... your case has been suspended under Section 221(g) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act, pending ...[an] administrative process ... this will take approximately 4-6 weeks .... Please do not call the consulate, [we will call you]!"

Well, the guy said he is expediting my precessing and it should take 1-2 weeks, but also said it could be ready by Friday. Even then, my visa renewal is not guaranteed! He was really nice and gave me a phone number to call and see the status of my application.

Tuesday is not over yet ... and my old visa was stamped "CANCELLED WITHOUT PREJUDICE, JAN 08 2007," Morons! Or maybe Mexico is still in 2007?

In short, I cant come back to the US, I cant go to Kenya (I have no docs as they have been "send" to Washington DC) and I am illegally in Mexico.

Thank you for reading this far! Peace out, I gotta continue writing my thesis proposal (my meeting is on Feb 5, 2008 ... who amongst you is an expert in teleconferencing?)