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Un Canadien errant:: Why I gave up my U.S. green by Michael Byers
Description: Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia gives an insightful account of how and why he gave up his US green card.
Date: 21 April 2006
Source: The Globe and Mail, F6
”This is the first time I've met someone who wanted to do that.“
The U.S. immigration officer's southern drawl, so out of place in the Vancouver airport, was accentuated by incredulity.

A "green card," which is actually off-white in colour and called a Permanent Resident Card, provides full rights to enter, live and work in the world's most powerful country. It conveys most of the advantages of U.S. citizenship, so much so that it can be traded in for an American passport after just five years. Yet there I was, 4½ years after I had acquired it, asking for my green card to be taken away.

Acquiring U.S. permanent residency is an arduous process, involving blood tests, chest X-rays and numerous documents, including police certificates attesting to a crime-free past. Even with a prominent sponsor, Duke University, it had taken me three years.

Apart from the 50,000 "diversity immigrants" selected by lottery each year, the 50,000 refugees and the roughly 140,000 who, like me, are targeted for universities and high-tech jobs, most of those who aspire to live and work in the United States have no chance of legally settling there. Still, millions flock to the country, like moths to a flame.

I was on my way to a conference in San Diego when I surrendered my green card. The next morning, out for an early run, I saw scores of Mexican men tending lawns and flowerbeds. Later, a woman from Guatemala cleaned my hotel room. I remembered one of my grad students at Duke, now a law professor in Mexico City, explaining that most of these labourers have forged social-security cards that are convincing enough to protect their employers from the police, while providing no protections for the workers.

Six years ago, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson estimated that 660,000 Canadians were living and working illegally in the United States. Most Canadians blend in easily. But after Sept. 11, 2001, fear replaced curiosity as the standard response to things unknown. Before 9/11, my wife's English accent often generated a friendly response, including the comment "You sound just like Princess Diana." After the attacks, the warm chatter gave way to a strained silence.

At least my princess had a green card and was, therefore, on the legally advantageous side of the divide between "us" and "them." Thousands of men of Arab ethnicity were rounded up and either detained or deported without charge or access to lawyers. Significantly, none of them were citizens or permanent residents of the United States.

Of course, even U.S. citizenship does not provide the protections it once did. In 2002, the Bush administration jailed two Americans without charge or access to lawyers, in direct denial of habeas corpus, a common-law principle that dates back to Magna Carta. And then there is the secret, unconstitutional wiretapping program.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" the immigration officer whispered as she ushered me toward the secondary-screening room.

"Yes," I replied. "I don't want to lie to you. I no longer live in the United States."

Under U.S. law, permanent residents lose that status if they leave the country for more than one year. Yet many green-card holders do precisely that, returning to the United States periodically to "keep their options open." They often maintain U.S. addresses, sometimes with family or friends, but just as often with commercial providers, in order to sustain the fiction that they reside in the United States. Some companies even rent street addresses, as opposed to box numbers, and will automatically ship any mail received there onward to a designated foreign address.

Absentee green-card holders often use their driver's licences to cross the border, or new passports that are free of stamps that might alert an attentive immigration officer to their dubious status. If asked, they will deny having a connection with the United States.

Such ploys are becoming riskier as the computer systems of different U.S. government departments, and different national governments, are linked together to improve security. At particular risk are green-card holders who have failed to file U.S. tax returns, as all permanent residents are required to do.

As of Jan. 1, 2007, anyone entering the United States by air or sea will be required to have a passport or other as-yet-unspecified "secure" document. From Jan. 1, 2008, the same requirement will apply to those entering on land. The Canadian government has lobbied against this move because of concerns that it will deter millions of Americans -- less than one-quarter of whom currently have passports -- from visiting Canada. The cruise-ship and conference industries are particularly vulnerable, along with the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The new requirement will also make it more difficult for green-card holders living in Canada, and Canadians living illegally in the United States, to move freely between the two countries.

At last month's Cancun summit, George W. Bush indicated that he supported the passport legislation: "Congress passed the law and I intend to enforce the law." At record low levels in the polls, Mr. Bush is not about to veto a bill brought forward by members of his own party in preparation for the mid-term congressional elections this fall. Prime Minister Stephen Harper quickly conceded that Canada could do nothing to resist.

At the secondary screening, I was greeted by an immigration officer whose name tag and features suggested Vietnamese origins.

"Which form should I use?" he asked his supervisor. The supervisor, a stout man with a mid-western accent, gave a world-weary sigh. "Voluntaries get the short form."

It took 45 minutes to complete the short form. It was an entirely business-like procedure: No small talk, no smiles. At one point, I commented on the complexity of the process. He said, "Well, this is a big deal. It's like getting married."

No, I thought. It was more like getting divorced.

My wife and I had moved to North Carolina in 1999. The stock market was booming, most Americans felt prosperous and secure, and Bill Clinton -- despite Whitewater and Lewinsky -- was still capably in charge. It seemed obvious that one of two smart, experienced, open-minded internationalists, Al Gore or John McCain, would follow in January, 2001.

But then we were amused, perplexed and finally disgusted at the dirty tricks deployed in the 2000 election campaign, first to defeat Mr. McCain, and then to steal victory from Mr. Gore. And we felt nothing but horror as the Twin Towers collapsed, knowing not only that thousands of lives had been lost, but that Mr. Bush's neo-conservative advisers would seize their chance to plot a militaristic course.

My instinctive response was to put words to paper. Five days later, on Sept. 16, 2001, my article, "The hawks are hovering. Prepare for more bombs," appeared in London's Independent on Sunday. I continued to write, almost exclusively for British papers, chastising the Bush administration for its unnecessary violations of human rights and international law.

Needless to say, my opinions attracted considerable hostility, all the more so because I was expressing them from within a conservative law school at a conservative university in the very conservative South. I stood my ground, but it wasn't easy. And then it occurred to me: The United States wasn't my country; it wasn't a place for which I wanted to fight. My thoughts drifted northward, to the place where my values had been forged.

The immigration officer worked his way through a series of questions designed to confirm my identity and soundness of mind. The last question was the toughest: "Why do you wish to surrender your permanent resident card?"

How do you explain to an American -- especially one with a flag on his shoulder and a gun on his hip -- that you no longer wish to live in the United States?

I thought about the man across the counter, how he would have fled the postwar chaos and poverty of Vietnam, how he might have been plucked off a rickety boat by the U.S. Navy and may have gravitated toward the immigration service out of an innate sense of gratitude to his new homeland.

My principal motivation in surrendering my green card was not to avoid problems at the border. I was seeking to commit -- without hesitation or qualification -- to my own special place. As someone who was born in Canada, I never had to affirm my citizenship. I never had to demonstrate my deep love for this country. Unlike the millions of Canadians who were born outside Canada, I'd never made my choice.

The moment was upon me. My heart bursting with pride, I looked the immigration officer in the eye and said, as simply and non-judgmentally as possible: "I have chosen to live permanently in Canada."

"Permanently?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, "Of course."

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
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