After six months of waiting, $900 in application fees, one lost job offer, thousands of dollars in lost salary and untold emotional strain, a Martha's Vineyard immigration story ended happily last week. If there is a moral to the tale, it is that the Department of Homeland Security is a bureaucracy as easy to navigate as Cape Horn in a squall, and despite its reputation, the Edgartown post office is not always to blame.
When Homeland Security took over the immigration system in 2003, it became even more difficult to acquire working papers, but one thing did not change: the system depends on the U.S. mail, not phone, not Internet, not in person. Without the mail, there is no application process and there are no work visas or green cards.
Fortunately, the United States has one of the most reliable mail systems in the world.
That is why a couple of West Tisbury newlyweds who applied for the wife's papers on Jan. 1 were surprised to discover in April - with the help of a congressman in Connecticut - that her immigration mail had been sent back in February as "mail undeliverable."
When Rep. John B. Larson's office investigated further, the couple - Robert Goldfarb and Dr. Magda Ramirez - found the mail was intact and the immigration office had their correct mailing address: a post office box in Edgartown.
The problem - or so it seemed - was with the Edgartown post office.
At the immigration bureau of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the phone number is toll free and routes to an office in an unknown location. For reasons of national security, customer service representatives will not disclose what state they are in.
"They would never have told us that [the package was sent back] if we had not had that conversation with John Larson's office," said Mr. Goldfarb, who is originally from Connecticut and is event and camp director at the FARM Institute in Edgartown.
The couple had appealed to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's office first, Mr. Goldfarb said, along with regional high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan, but there was no reply.
The inquiry by Representative Larson's office, led by district aide Beth A. Monchun, revealed that a package had been sent from immigration months prior with an ornate, watermarked letter saying, "If you fail to appear as scheduled, your application will be considered abandoned."
The scheduled interview - the last step in acquiring a visa - was long past, and Dr. Ramirez was no longer allowed in the country, although she didn't know this because she had not received her mail. In fact, she thought she wasn't allowed to leave, since the papers granting her permission to leave the country also never arrived.
Representative Larson's office negotiated a second chance for Dr. Ramirez. Immigration officials verified her mailing address and agreed to resend the packet of information and a new interview deadline.
Meanwhile, Mr. Goldfarb went to the Edgartown post office seeking answers.
"They thought I was just talking for a worker," Mr. Goldfarb said of his interaction with the woman behind the counter in the post office. He had not said that Magda Ramirez was his wife. "That's when the person said, ‘Oh, well, we get a lot of mail from immigration, so we just send it back.' "
Stunned, Mr. Goldfarb said he reacted angrily and the postal worker retracted her statement.
"Then she said, ‘That would never happen, we wouldn't have sent it back,' " Mr. Goldfarb said.
By the end of May, the second-chance package still had not arrived, so Representative Larson's office took up the case again and discovered that the package had been returned - again.
This time Mr. Goldfarb went to the post office in West Tisbury, their town of residence. The post office there had no packages for a Dr. Ramirez and referred Mr. Goldfarb to Vineyard Haven, where all Island mail makes first landfall after coming from the mainland.
At the Vineyard Haven post office, Mr. Goldfarb spoke to a postal employee who was sympathetic but unsurprised by the story of what had happened in Edgartown, Mr. Goldfarb said.
"The gist of that conversation was that it had happened before - that it would be sent back," he said.
Representative Larson's office arranged for Dr. Ramirez to apply for her papers in Connecticut. Two days later, she received a letter in the mailbox of Mr. Goldfarb's parents' mailbox with an appointment to collect identifying physical information like measurements, fingerprints and photographs.
The work visa arrived a week later. It was mid-June, but the visa had been validated Feb. 24.
"We're lucky," Mr. Goldfarb said. "We lost six months of work - but some people wait years."
In the beginning of August, another letter arrived in Connecticut from immigration, this time scheduling an interview for the permanent resident card, or green card. Dr. Ramirez and Mr. Goldfarb went to Connecticut armed with phone bills, bank statements, photographs, newspaper clippings and leases - anything that would show they were really in love and living together.
When they arrived for the interview, the immigration officer said the application would probably be invalid with out-of-state identification and residency.
Dr. Ramirez showed him the letter of explanation from Representative Larson, recounting the story of the problems with mail delivery.
The immigration officer told them to check back in a month or two if they didn't hear anything. The next day, Mr. Goldfarb and Dr. Ramirez drove back to Massachusetts, depressed.
"We thought we were going to do the whole process over again," Mr. Goldfarb said.
But phone calls and the letter from Representative Larson proved persuasive.
The next day, the district aide learned the application had been approved. The green card reached the Connecticut mailbox at the end of August and last weekend, Mr. Goldfarb's brother Matthew Goldfarb brought it back to the Island.
"We don't dare put it in the mail," Mr. Goldfarb said.
Last Tuesday, the card was still sitting at the FARM Institute; Dr. Ramirez had not held it in her hands yet.
Dr. Ramirez is now teaching advanced placement Spanish part time at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and studying for her U.S. medical boards in her spare time.
"I can tell you how difficult it was to know I couldn't work and be productive," she said. Dr. Ramirez ran a family health care clinic in the Guatemalan rainforest for 10 years.
With the battle finally over and won, the couple started thinking about the post office again and the many immigrants going through their own struggle to get work visas and green cards.
"It's so much energy - it takes so much out of you," Dr. Ramirez said. "We're so thankful we had each other for support. You feel pretty close to criminal being in the U.S. and not having your working papers. You don't feel the right to ask for anything."
Now the couple would like to help others going through the process of getting visas.
"Hopefully we can pass on that support that we received," Dr. Ramirez said.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Goldfarb brought the immigration mail home to West Tisbury. In addition to the green card, there was a large envelope containing the original packages that were returned to immigration.
Dr. Ramirez and Mr. Goldfarb took out the packages and made a startling discovery. The address was not an Edgartown post office box but a West Tisbury street address. Edgartown had never received the packages. The West Tisbury post office had sent them back - having no record of a postal box for Dr. Ramirez.
The error was Homeland Security's all along.