20/20 (20 minutes of writing for 20 days): 3. “I-21”

She snuck in right at 5:00 pm with that look that says, “I did not do what I was supposed to do and now I am frantic and need you to help me… PLEASE!”  We close to students at 4:00 but some just walk in any way–despite the signs–and make their way to my office since it is the first in line.  “I am leaving to go home tomorrow night, and I need a travel signature–mine expired,” she said. No surprise there.  Happens more than it should.

I told her to fill out a request online, and that I would get to it first thing in the morning. 

“But I have my I-21 with me Mr. Davis–can’t you just sign that?  Please?”

“Your I-20, you mean.”  She looks a bit confused (not surprising, what with all these forms–I-765, I-539–sometimes I get it wrong too).

But, wait, I should probably back up.  I advise international students at UC Davis.  That means a lot of things but, fundamentally, it means I provide them with the documents they need to get student visas to enter the US and study.  Now the vast majority of our students are on “F-1” visas.  That basically means they are not intending to immigrate, and they are allowed to stay in the US as long as they are enrolled full time in study.  In order for them to get their visa, a school, in this case UC Davis, issues them an “I-20” form that has their biographical information, their course of study, and a signature of a school official attesting to the fact that they are a student.  I am one of those school officials.

The I-20 form plays a lot of other roles as the student progresses through their career: it might include work authorization, permission to attend part time and, most importantly for our purposes, a signature that basically says “this student is leaving the country but we attest that they are still a student here so let them back in–please.” That is the “travel signature” in question, and yes, it literally means that I sign the form twice–once on the front when I issue it, and once on the back for travel.  Travel signatures are good for a year, and hers had expired.

Looking at her then, and realizing I needed to get to my other job by 5:30, I almost shooed her out and stuck to my guns on making her fill in the online request.  But… if she had her form, I could just sign it there and be done with it.  So, I relented.

“Okay, give me your student ID so I can check your record and make sure everything is okay,” I said.

She read it out while I typed it into the database (SUNAPSIS if you need to know), but she only read 8 digits and our ID’s all have 9.  I asked her to repeat it and it still came up 8.  I remarked on this and she said: “Well it always worked before.”  Now, at this point, we were getting back to me wanting to tell her to leave and fill out the request online… But…

“Okay, give me your ID and let me see.”

She handed it to me and, strangely, it had only 8 digits!

“So this thing has a typo,” I said, “you say this worked before?  Are you sure?

“Yes. Never any problems.” she said.

“Okay, well it won’t work for me.  Let’s use your name.”

I read it off the card and typed it in.  Nothing.  SUNAPSIS said basically “no such student exists.”

“Well, you are not in there and I don’t get it.”  I tried reordering her name (sometimes first and last names get switched) but… nothing.  “Okay, you know what, I bet you are not a student at UC Davis.  You are at Extension, right?”  (Extension, though part of the University issues their own I-20s and their students are not in our database.)

“Oh, no, I am a student here.  I am doing my Ph.D. focusing on the effects of salt water on peanut production–really important for my country…”

She would have gone on but I stopped her.  Okay, if she is a Ph.D. student, definitely not at Extension.  Next question…

“Okay, so can you show me your I-20?  I mean, who issued it?  Who signed it?”

“My I-21?” (that again)  “You did. You are Mr. Davis, right?  I mean, you have shaved your head and all but I still recognize you from the last time.  Here.  See?”

She handed me her I-20 and my eye went right to the “School Official” line and I read “Robert Davis.”  By now I am really confused.  Her I-20 in my hand, my name on it, but no record of her in the database.  And now I am running late and need to go.  I mean, I want to help but I have to check the record to make sure nothing is going on, and there CLEARLY IS something going on (and what was she getting at about my hair–I haven’t had any since long before I started working here!).

I said “Okay, look.  I have to go now.  You are leaving tomorrow night so I will have time to figure out what happened to your record in the database.  I will get it all taken care of, sign the I-20 and you can come back in–I should have it done by noon.  Will that work?”

By that time she was as flustered as I was but she also saw that I was confused, a bit tired, and that I really needed to get out of there.

“Okay,” she said.  “I will call you first thing tomorrow.”

I was glad there was no “fight” (sometimes there is–and that is never fun).

“Look, it would be helpful if you have a photocopy of the face page of your passport and one of your visa page to go along with your I-20.  That way I have more to go on.”  I said.

“Sure,” she said as she shuffled through some papers.  “Here.”  She handed me a few and I took them and her I-20 and laid them on my desk. We walked out together and she seemed calm enough.  She said it was good to see me again (for the life of me I could not remember her, which is odd because I usually DO remember everyone’s face–I just can’t always remember what they came to talk about the previous time they saw me.)  We said our goodbyes in front of the international center.

And that was the last time I ever saw her…

The next morning I showed up at work with her conundrum very much on my mind.  These kinds of things happen more than you would think and there is a perfectly reasonable explanation in 99% of the cases once you dig into the history, the records, and the wisdom of colleagues who have been around the block on these things.

Entering my office I picked up the docs and… well… that’s when things got strange.  She HAD given me her “I-21”–it said so, right there in the upper right-hand corner where the “I-20” is supposed to go.  I immediately hit the DOS and NAFSA sites to find about this form (which looked EXACTLY like the I-20) and found… nothing.  “What the hell?”

I looked down at the school official line and Robert Davis was there, but this time I looked more closely at the signature (are their two Robert Davises doing this?).  My signature looked like mine, which is a scribbled but discernable “Robert” followed by an unreadable “Davis.”  Except that this one wasn’t Robert, it was clearly “Robbie.”  “What the hell?”  I haven’t used that since I was 16!

I looked more closely at the “I-21”  at the location of the issuing school “University of California, Davis”–except it wasn’t.  It read “University of Northern California, Davis”. By now I was getting a little shaky.  What was I seeing here?  I decided to check her passport, if for no other reason than to find a bit of sanity in what was starting to feel like a tilting room.

Her name was an unremarkable Anglo Saxon but the issuing nation…

Oh the nation…

“Confederation of Southern Georgia and Jacksonville” with a seal I had never seen.

And the visa…

Oh the visa…

Issued by the “People’s Republic of Northern California.”

This all happened 5 weeks ago.  She never called that day.  Never came in.  I still have her papers on my desk–hidden under a pile.  I pull them out from time to time to see if they might have changed (they have not) and as I page through them I wonder at what the “Confederation” from which she comes is like, how it must be to live in the “Republic,” and what that guy Robbie Davis looks like with hair.

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