Ruben Van Kempen has been in the U.S. so long — 55 years — that he had stopped thinking of himself as an immigrant. Then last week he got a letter from the government suggesting maybe he shouldn’t be here at all.
By all accounts except the federal government’s, Ruben Van Kempen is a pillar of the community. For 37 years he taught theater in Seattle Public Schools, growing Roosevelt High’s drama program into one of the best in the country.
But now that he’s retired, he can’t convince the feds he belongs here at all.
“I haven’t thought of myself as an immigrant for decades,” Van Kempen told me. “Now that they’re talking about me as an alien, I do feel a little like a stranger in a strange land.”
It all started in February, when Van Kempen, about to turn 65, applied for his Social Security and Medicare benefits. Of Dutch-Indonesian heritage, he immigrated to the U.S. from Holland in 1962, when he was 10, and became a U.S. citizen in 1982.
That was all so long ago he didn’t think a thing about it. Social Security had been sending him those letters for decades that total up all the retirement benefits he had earned.
But after he submitted his U.S. passport, his Social Security card and his naturalization certificate from the day he was sworn in, Social Security wrote back that his application “could not be processed” due to questions about his immigration status.
Perplexed, he submitted all the documents again, in person at the Social Security office in Seattle. This time, the agency’s eventual response, dated last week, was unsettling.
“The Department of Homeland Security is unable to verify the immigrant document you submitted as evidence of your lawful alien status,” reads the letter. “Please contact us when your alien status changes, or is renewed, so you can work in the U.S.”
In other words, he’s a man without a country.
Shaken, he called Homeland Security. According to Van Kempen, the agency wouldn’t answer questions about what review it might be doing of his immigration status. Yet Social-Security officials have told him he can’t qualify for any benefits until Homeland Security clears him.
Again, this is a revered theater teacher who became a citizen 35 years ago. He showed me his naturalization certificate, dated Jan. 22, 1982, signed and stamped by U.S. District Court officials in Seattle. His wife, Myrnie, 63, and two grown children are all U.S. citizens, as well.
“This is not how any American citizen should be treated,” Van Kempen wrote in a letter asking for help from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
Neither Homeland Security nor Social Security officials address questions about specific cases, citing privacy concerns. The paper trail suggests Van Kempen can file an appeal into this Kafkaesque black hole.
It’s possible this is all an innocent glitch. Social-Security computers have been known to accidentally declare live people dead. So they can surely convert a U.S. citizen into an unlawful alien with a keystroke.
Maybe Van Kempen’s case, once it’s resolved, will have just been a mistake.
But it has occurred to him that the country’s changing immigration policies might have triggered a tougher review of anyone with an immigrant background. An executive order signed in January, entitled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” specifically calls out any “alien” who has “abused any program related to receipt of public benefits.”
Tougher screening of immigrants for everything from food stamps to Medicare is also the subject of a draft order that’s been circulating for months. That order hasn’t been signed, though.
None of this should apply to Van Kempen anyway.
“Am I being swept up in something related to immigration?” he said. “Is it something about my Indonesian heritage? I’ve started wondering: Can I travel? If I leave my country, will they let me back in?”
His uncertain status is about to start costing him real money. He turns 65 on May 7, this Sunday. Without the Medicare coverage he was counting on (and that he paid 37 years of payroll taxes for), he says he’ll have to pay $625 per month for private insurance.
Beyond all the bureaucratic aggravation, Van Kempen said he’s been wondering anew about the immigrant experience.
“They were having that immigration march on May Day, and suddenly it hit me, ‘Wow, that’s me!’ ” he said. “In my lifetime, America has always been so welcoming to immigrants that I’ve never even thought of myself as being an immigrant.
“Now I’m thinking, maybe I should be out there marching.”