Fear and Loathing in Portugal’s Immigration System

CNAI (Porgual's National Immigrant Support Centre) was set up to make assimilation for the growing amount of immigrants to Portugal less complicated. What follows is an account of how our correspondent availed himself of their services in Lisbon.

CNAI (Centros Nacionais de Apoio ao Imigrante, or National Immigrant Support Centers) sprung up in Portugal in 2004, out of necessity. The country felt a need to make assimilation for the growing amount of immigrants less complicated by combining several departments and offices in a single location.

The organization offers numerous, mostly free services, from language classes, daycare, and voter registration to job placement, healthcare assistance, and social security advice. A lot of the staff speak English. In its early days, CNAI won several awards for its customer service and efficiency, including the First Place for Good Manners in the Public Sector in 2005.

Today, there are three branches: in Lisbon, Porto, and Faro. The Lisbon center is located in Anjos, a popular but still somewhat seedy part of town. And inside its walls is a very special type of mini-hell for most who have been. The following is a true story. It is a Kafkaesque tribute to immigrants and bureaucrats everywhere. Certain names and times have been changed, to protect the innocent.

Part 1: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

April 4th, 2018
It’s 7:15 a.m., an ungodly hour for most of god’s creatures. It’s Wednesday, and it’s still raining. I get up, wash face and brush teeth, skip shower and breakfast and head straight to CNAI. I’m going for the third time in two months, with the same problem. The first two attempts were a no-go due to what some call “the system.” But third time’s the charm, right?
Fortunately, the office is seven minutes by foot from my room. Because you want to get there early. Like, Black Friday- or Pearl Jam concert enthusiast-early. As per custom, I get in the line already stretching outside, halfway down the street. For a few seconds, I sulk in the all too familiar sensation of being the whitest person here. We silently wade through the hallway inside, at a snail’s pace (a few more white people in here). I get my ticket relatively soon, in just under two hours. “L040,” it says.

It’s 9:12 a.m. I look up at one of the screens to find “L007” on it. Thirty-three numbers — or, rather, a few dozen people — ahead of me. Yes, I brought a book: Robert Louis Stevenson’s collected short stories.

I am here to find out whether I have a Social Security number (a “NISS”). The honest truth is, I can’t remember. I’m sure that I have one, but can’t seem to find it anywhere. After two years of a Bible’s worth of paperwork, mostly in a language still foreign to me, and likely to most Portuguese; after two years of countless emails, phone calls, tickets, numbers, rescheduled flights, coffee meetings, depressing never-ending lines, crying babies, nerve-racking back-and-forths in bureaucratic dungeons both sides of the Atlantic, I have simply lost count. The Portuguese lawyer who helped me immigrate doesn’t know either and has stopped responding to my emails about the matter a week ago. I need this number to, among other things, be registered in the Portuguese healthcare system. So I decided to go to the source. My questions are simple, I assume: do I have a number? If so, what is it? If not, how can I get one?

I find a seat and prepare to wait. There are unattended children, nervous old ladies, people in tracksuits and people in what they assume are fancy clothes, all sorts of characters with one thing in common — the obvious longing to be anywhere else. The employees just started the day, have good poker faces on, and are doing their best, for now. Still, the mood is in very stark contrast to the giant portrait photos hanging on the two-story walls: smiling children of undisclosed but obviously not European Portuguese origins. Overall, the atmosphere is peaceful, though. Or maybe I’m growing immune. There’s the usual crying and screaming babies, but no crying or screaming adults yet.

It’s 9:36 a.m. I look up from “The Body-Snatcher” — a great little story about the healthcare system in old Scotland — and see “L007” again. But of course: it’s the Social Security office, this is going to be a while. At 9:45 a.m., with still no changes, I abruptly decide to walk home. I have been told by my roommate that this is the best way to remain sane. I have a quick breakfast and am out the door again.

It’s 10:30 a.m. and I’m back. The screen says “L007.” Tensions are still low though, as other departments seem to be moving along. The electronic bell signaling the change in numbers dings every couple of seconds, giving some hope. I meditate on the impulse to look up every time I hear it. Pavlov’s dogs and whatnot.

10:48 a.m., the bell rings constantly. Amidst the endless numbers and letters on three screens, my eye already knows exactly where to look. Time slows down. And then, ding: “L008.” Progress.

11:35 a.m. Ding: “L009.” Come on, bureaucracy. You can do it! I decide to get a 30 cent cappuccino from the vending machine: affordable luxury.

It’s 12 p.m., and “L011” is on the screen. I make another brave decision to leave; I need to get some work done, and this is not the type of place one opens their laptop. Common courtesy. I’ll be back in an hour…

12:58 p.m. The screen says “L012.” The general huffing and puffing increases, as does the number of angry immigrants storming out of offices. I start to wonder if today will be like the last two times. But hope dies last, and “The Body-Snatcher” is getting good.

1:35 p.m., the screen says “L020.” I don’t have to be anywhere else. But I’m getting nervous. Not again. That Eastern European woman has been here since the very beginning too. Does she have a ticket?

2 p.m., and still “L020.” I decide to go for a walk. I’ve long finished “The Body-Snatcher.”

The view outside CNAI

2:41 p.m. Ding: “L032.” Hope! (woah… what the hell happened to those 12 souls?). I decide to stay put and move to the second floor, an equally depressing area with less seating but closer to the room I need. I examine the professionally done giant portraits and speculate about the photographers. Do they work for CNAI? Then I start flipping through Stevenson, half-heartedly. The electronic bell has become vital now: I look up and almost salivate every three seconds.

3:48 p.m. It has been stuck on “L038” for 20 minutes now… I really don’t like this “L038.” Seriously. What is the hold-up?

It’s 4:12 p.m. and, lo and behold: “L040”!

Part 2: “The waiting is NOT the hardest part.”

4:14 p.m. I show the security guard my ticket and enter a large room with three desks, two of which have typical bureaucrat ladies in their 60s behind them, Desk Number One and Desk Number Three. Desk Number Two, at the far end of the room, is unattended. One of the ladies looks like an Alaskan truck driver. She rarely smiles. I wonder about her personal life and sense of humor. She verifies my number with the security guard. I greet her, sit down at her Desk Number One and immediately conclude there will be minimal English; but I have practiced the necessary sentences.

I somehow manage to explain my situation, and she seems very receptive and eager to help. The paperwork comes out: my passport, Portuguese Residency Card, the Bible. She sorts through what she needs, verifies with a magnifying glass where necessary, gets on her desktop, starts concentrating and clicking her mouse patiently.

Then, a minute later, confused, she looks back at me.

“You live in the United States?”, she asks.

“No, I live in Lisbon. It’s my second year here. Here’s my address”, I reply in my dreadful Portunhol, and present her with various proof.

“But here it says that you are registered under a U.S. address”, she points at something I can’t see on her computer.

“I made the address change last year.”, I insist. This I remember.

“Hmmm… Ok, hold on.”

She consults her colleague at Desk Number Three; the latter enthusiastically and immediately leaves the person she is attending to and walks over; they both proceed to scratch their heads a little over this newfound curiosity. I present more proof.

They have an idea. The “truck driver” gets out a big blue book, sits back in front of me, finally finds a number and proceeds to make a phone call. After some time, she reaches someone, somewhere. I struggle to follow the formal conversation regarding my address. Halfway through she gives me an encouraging thumbs up and a nod: “Don’t worry.”

It’s 4:37 p.m. She hangs up the phone and proceeds to try to explain the issue. I finally blush and admit that I don’t understand. She says not to worry and dials for a translator. The translator arrives: Sara, a much younger, less bureaucratic-looking woman with very good English. From their exchange, I catch that the “truck driver’s” name is Raquel.

Sara calmly explains that my address is indeed Portuguese. This is a relief, although somewhat puzzling. She further explains that I don’t have a NISS because paperwork was mailed to said address but turned back because “the door was closed.” 
 I say that I understand (this has happened before) and ask what I can do. Raquel makes a few copies of my paperwork, takes my phone number, address, and email, and then explains that she will email her colleague to try to resolve the matter.
 “How long will it take, do you think?” I ask.
 “Oh, that’s hard to say. Probably a few months,” Raquel replies.
Sara, the translator, leaves.

Another few months doesn’t work for me, not at all. But beggars can’t be choosers. It’s 4:49p.m., and “L041” has been waiting at the door behind me. I start to gather my things and am grateful that I at least made it to an actual human this third time around. Raquel is rounding up the copies she made, clicking her mouse, assuring me her mystery colleague will help; she shows me her screen to prove she is sending an email and CC-ing me on it. I say thank you.

I am listening attentively as I realize that my Residency Card, which was on the table in front of me minutes ago, is no longer on the table in front of me. I remain calm and start to double-check every pocket, my wallet, my passport case, my bag, the table, every page of the Bible. I scan the room and the floor, peak at Raquel’s workstation. Again. And again. I start to get nervous and fidget but Raquel pays no mind. She tells me the email is sent.

Then she makes it obvious that we are done here, and I politely ask about the Residency Card.

“What Residency Card?” she replies, confused again.

“It was on the table right here in front of us the whole time; but it’s not anymore,” I explain.

“I only saw it in the beginning and gave it back to you. Check your things.”
The woman behind Desk Number Three becomes involved again. I proceed to thoroughly and demonstratively check everything I have, for the third time, and continue to panic. I turn my pockets inside out, showing my bewilderment, and then make a plea: “Maybe in the scanner?”

Raquel checks the printer and scanner several times, as well as her and her colleague’s desks, meanwhile reminding me that she never made a copy of the card and gave it back to me when we met. Commotion engulfs the room. She checks all her papers, we both comb the table where my things were, all my belongings are separated on the floor for all to see. The other seated immigrant, the security guard and “L041” at the door are not pleased. I am smiling nervously, my Portuguese is failing me, and I feel myself turning red. I get the chills. Have I gone insane? In a final attempt at logic, I think of and mention the blue book of phone numbers. The woman behind Desk Number Three gestures “Aha! Good point!”, gets the book back out, and all three of us comb its every page, shaking it afterwards to be certain.

Raquel shakes her papers too, and they both are convinced at this point that I’m either lying or crazy. I ask Raquel to check her workstation, the area we didn’t really touch, and she becomes defensive and scowls a little. I laugh nervously and try to convey the importance of the matter to them. The woman at Desk Number Three seems to be equally concerned and implores me to remain calm. This, however, is difficult. How can I explain this after I leave here? To whom? The one and a half years I spent getting over here all culminated in that one card. I can probably get a replacement but, given the current circumstances and my overall knowledge of Portuguese bureaucracy, how long will that take? A few months? What address will it be mailed to?

It’s around 5 p.m. I’m on my hands and knees defiantly crawling on the floor of CNAI’s Social Security office, looking under every possible nook, freaking the fuck out. Raquel is visibly annoyed, the woman behind Desk Number Three has a look of motherly concern and pity as she returns to her immigrant. “L041” and the security guard are ready to physically escort me out of the building.

“This is very important; this is my life” I mumble in fluent Portuguese as the panic resides and despair sets in. Time stops. I get up from the floor. What comes next?

Then, out of the blue, Raquel — god bless her soul — walks over to long-forgotten Desk Number Two, says “Ah…”, and retrieves my card from the desk’s edge. The only place no one thought to look. An intense wave of relief washes over my whole body, and I almost scream.

“Desculpe. Desculpe-me,” I exclaim in pure ecstasy.

“Não, não, não… desculpe-me!”, replies Raquel with a big grin.

“Sara”, she adds, laughs, and hands me the card.

It seems that during the exchange with Sara the translator, Raquel had both my passport and Residency Card in her hands. While I was paying attention to matters regarding my life, she nonchalantly put my passport on her desk but, for reasons unknown, my Residency Card on vacant Desk Number Two, within reach but completely out of view.

I put the card back in my passport case and place both in a secure pocket. Everybody, even “L041” and the security guard, seems relieved and gives me encouraging looks. I shake Raquel’s hand, thank her and apologize again. She is happy and smiling. I am numb, and it’s a weird scene. I regather all my things quickly, apologize to “L041”, double-check my Residency Card and passport, and get the hell out of there. The security guard gives me a pat on the back as he laughs.

Part 3: “Hope dies last.”

It’s 5:45 p.m. I email my Portuguese lawyer, explaining my new situation and asking for help. I’m calm, a little drained and very confused, but content with not having lost my Residency Card. I really don’t want to go back to CNAI.

At 6:17 p.m., my phone rings. An unfamiliar number. I pick up, and it’s Raquel. She sounds excited. The CNAI offices close at 5 p.m., by the way. At this point, she is family. In clear, slow Portuguese she explains that I have a NISS. I let this sink in. She practices her English and tells me the number. I write it down, in a haze; she asks me to read it back to her. I do so in Portuguese. She then explains that I can come in any time to pick up the official paper. I tell her that I can be there in five minutes, to which she replies “today’s impossible” but any other day after 9 a.m. is fine. Just tell the security guard and ask for her.

There are many questions to which I will probably never know the answers. What is “the system?” Why are its representatives in Portugal so nice? Why did Raquel decide to work overtime? Why and, more importantly, how did she squeeze a matter of months into one hour? How many addresses am I registered under here? Is my lawyer working on another Social Security number? If so, how many Social Security numbers will I have? Where did Sara come from? What is the fate of “L041”? Where are the children on the portraits from?

Is it going to rain tomorrow?

April 5th, 2018

9:15 a.m. I wake up, slowly. It’s raining. Yesterday’s ordeal is starting to feel like a strange distant dream. I take a shower, eat breakfast, and calmly head back to CNAI.

The good news? I don’t need a ticket. I walk straight past the line, inside, past the posters and to the second floor.

“L041” is long gone, the security guard is new and indifferent; but Raquel, my old friend, is there.

On Key

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