A vagabond musician from who lived illegally in Canada for 20 years has earned a dubious distinction, becoming one of the few Americans Canada deports each year to the U.S. Now he's like a man without country, lacking the ID he needs to get work or drive.
BIRCH BAY, Whatcom County — For 20 years, Michael “Kooch” Koch, a U.S. citizen, lived as an illegal immigrant in Canada.
He obtained a Canadian driver’s license in 1989 and with his guitar and a boom box earned money making music on the streets and in parks around British Columbia.
Last fall, the law caught up with him on an old DUI conviction, and the 55-year-old vagabond musician earned a dubious distinction — becoming one of the few American citizens the seemingly kinder, gentler neighbor to the north deports each year to the U.S.
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For Koch, the consequences have been particularly profound. In this small waterfront community a few miles south of the Canadian border where he now lives, he is like a man without a country.
He can’t get a driver’s license in Washington state because six years ago Canada said he lacked a valid address and wouldn’t renew the one he had.
Because he lacks ID, the New York State Department of Health won’t give him a copy of his birth certificate.
And without any of those documents, he can’t get a U.S. passport. Or a Social Security card.
Or a job — although he admits he’s never really held regular 9-to-5 employment.
So the eccentric Koch, with the look of a graying hippie, gets by on nudges and nods, and depends on the kindness of friends and strangers.
He sleeps in his old camper, which he parks in a friend’s backyard. When a woman he met four years ago, whom he considered his common-law wife, became ill back in Canada, he couldn’t go there to visit her. She died without him seeing her again.
“I’m what you might call an undocumented American,” Koch said. “Or maybe you can call me a CanAmerican. Whatever.”
Here by default
Koch was born in New York and raised in California. His new home by default is this Whatcom County community of about 5,200, a popular summertime playground for Canadians.
Len Saunders, a Blaine immigration attorney who read a letter Koch wrote to a local newspaper, took on his case pro bono, thinking it should be simple and quick.
“I figured, how hard can it be? He’s an American citizen.”
Now he’s running out of options for how to help.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen appealed to the agency that issues driver’s licenses in British Columbia, Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), which said that while Koch doesn’t need to be a legal resident of Canada to renew a driver’s license, he does need a legitimate address.
Koch even appealed to a man he claims is a distant uncle, former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
None of it has been successful.
Koch said he really doesn’t view Canada as the 51st state, and it was never his intention to emigrate there.
“Never in my life was I trying to give up my American citizenship,” he said.
In a conversation recently, Koch reflected on a life spent mostly on the street, with no solid means of supporting himself. Relationships he formed with women never became permanent.
“I’m just a hippie on the street, living in my camper,” he said.
Musician on the road
When he was about 10, his mother moved the family to California, where he hung out on Venice Beach and got caught up in the music scene, eventually earning a living, such as it was, as a musician. He met a Canadian woman, whom he said he followed to Montreal before the two made their way to Vancouver, B.C. When she moved on, he stayed behind, taking odd jobs in bars and on the streets around the Vancouver area.
“I was stuck there,” he said. “I had no money and no resources.”
“Everybody knew I was an American,” he said. “The police knew, my reverend knew. I didn’t try to keep it a secret.”
Using a friend’s address, he got a Canadian driver’s license in 1989. Like Washington state, ICBC issues licenses to residents with a valid address, regardless of their immigration status.
In 1991, Koch was found guilty of drunken driving and lost his driving privileges for a year.
The ICBC eventually restored his license and he was able to renew it repeatedly until 2003, when, using a different friend’s address, he applied to renew the license.
He was given a temporary one — without a photo — but he said his permanent license never arrived. He’s not sure why.
Then late one night last fall, when he was living in his camper in a town outside Vancouver, authorities knocked on the door, arrested him and took him into immigration detention.
He’s not sure how he came to their attention. But once he did, an immigration judge found him to be deportable, based on his 1991 DUI conviction.
The judge gave him 10 days to return to a country in which he hadn’t lived for 20 years, rendering him one of more than 12,600 people Canada deported in 2008.
About 1 in 5, like Koch, were sent to the U.S. — some because they are American citizens, others because it was from the U.S. that they entered Canada. By comparison, the U.S. deported 345,700 people last year.
Thomas Schreiber, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Blaine, said many of the Americans deported from Canada are war resisters who have exhausted their appeals, or they are fugitives or felons.
People like Koch, he said, are rare.
Once in Blaine, Koch said, he applied for a passport for the first time but was told he needed ID.
He tried to get a Washington state driver’s license and was told the same thing.
“I went to the church on C Street and started talking to people at the senior center. They let me get lunch.”
He keeps a pocket full of quarters to take the bus to Blaine so he can get food at a food bank. “I have a truck but I can’t drive it.”
For him, more important now than getting back to Canada is getting his life on track. He’s trying to rebuild his identity by tracking down his school records.
Canada, a country he grew to love, is in the past, at least for now. “I’m not really looking to go back there to live now.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org