A federal database wrongly cast Ruben Van Kempen, Roosevelt High’s drama teacher for 37 years, as an “unlawful alien.” It’s the same database Republicans have been clamoring to use to try to purge the voter rolls.
It took the American version of all the king’s men — a U.S. senator, a Congress member and the implied threat of hordes of lawyers — to put Ruben Van Kempen’s citizenship back together again.
Van Kempen, 65, was the subject of this column two weeks ago as “the man without a country.” He’s the beloved Roosevelt High School theater director who went to apply for Social Security and Medicare but was told he was an “unlawful alien” — though he’s been a U.S. citizen for 35 years.
Van Kempen has been notified that his Kafkaesque tale is over, sort of. But a new one, involving the larger governmental effort to vet immigrants for a range of purposes, may be about to begin.
“It appears that in Mr. Van Kempen’s case, there was a technical error,” the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency wrote vaguely to the office of U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle. The agency said the problem was in a database called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program.
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“We apologize for any inconvenience or undue concern this may have caused your constituent,” the agency wrote.
The problem with this explanation is that by the government’s own rules, U.S. citizens with passports are not supposed to be subjected to the otherworldly-named “Alien Verification” database. That program, with the acronym “SAVE,” is to vet immigrants here on work visas and other noncitizens who may be applying for benefit programs.
“Individuals presenting U.S. passports cannot be verified in SAVE because U.S. passports cannot be used to initiate a SAVE query,” a Department of Homeland Security explainer helpfully explains.
Yet Van Kempen, of Dutch-Indonesian heritage and a citizen since 1982, had showed his passport as proof of citizenship repeatedly at the Social Security office in Seattle, starting in February.
Van Kempen said he’s relieved a cavalry of political troops rode in to get his health care approved. But who else is in the same dragnet?
“I would still be considered an alien in my own country, and my file would still be sitting there buried, if a friend hadn’t thought to contact the Seattle Times,” he said. “But your newspaper can’t profile every immigrant with a problem. That leaves me very unsettled.”
Aides for Jayapal, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office in Washington, D.C., all contacted him and worked on his case, Van Kempen said. He also was offered free services by six different immigration attorneys, including one arranged by the ACLU.
“I guess I became the new poster boy,” Van Kempen said. “People are feeling very tense about immigration issues and what’s going on in this country.”
Students from across 37 years of teaching contacted him, offering help. Friends lightened the mood by picketing his 65th birthday party last week with fake protest signs, reading “Hell no, he won’t go,” “Free Ruben,” and “Ruben’s life matters.”
But his poster-boy status may only be beginning. It turns out Republicans have been championing efforts to expand the same Alien Verification program he got caught up in as a means to purge the voter-registration rolls.
Several states have tried it, including Kansas under Kris Kobach, who now is vice-chair of President Trump’s new commission on election integrity. Florida made news a few years ago for suing to get access to the federal Systematic Alien Verification database, insisting it could be used to accurately tell who is a citizen and who’s not.
Jayapal said Tuesday that the Van Kempen case is a study in how these vetting databases can harm innocent citizens, especially in the complex immigration arena. As a naturalized citizen herself who came here from India in 1982, she said calls to expand the Alien Verification database are clearly misguided.
“You see a case like Ruben’s, where they’ve denied a man who’s been a U.S. citizen for 35 years, and you sure have to wonder if the database they’re using is sound,” she said.
Van Kempen said, for his part, he found that being cast as an “alien” is surprisingly unsettling.
“I got weary of trying to prove something I had never thought much about before: Who I really am, do I belong here,” he said. “It feels good to be a man with a country again.”