“Because it’s Mississippi.” Renewing my driver’s license here is becoming the adventure I never asked for

When I made the decision to stay in Argentina indefinitely, I knew there would be bureaucratic issues I’d have to fix in the United States should I ever return.

However, traveling to different countries wasn’t a big deal as my passport is still valid for a few years and I made sure to solicit visas for which this is required.

Unlike other digital nomads who live in shiny cities such as New York, L.A., or Seattle, I can’t afford to live there. My family lives in Mississippi, in the humble town of Tupelo.

If you know about rock and roll’s history, you know this is where Elvis Presley was born, but I digress.

This Tuesday, May 21st I went to my local Department of Public Safety in Tupelo, MS at about 10:30 AM with my brother, who drives me around until I get my license back. I took my number and waited.

They attended us around 13:00 (1 PM) and I spoke to a white female with red hair. I explained that I lived abroad and that’s why my license was expired and asked to renew. I had my expired license, two bills with my name, and my U.S. passport.

The Redhead explained that I’d have to go to New Albany because the staff at Tupelo doesn’t process driver’s licenses for people born outside of the U.S. I explained that I have a U.S. passport and they asked for a citizenship certificate. I explained that I don’t have this but that there’s no way to obtain a passport without a U.S. citizenship certificate.

When I got home I told my mom what happened and we called the DPS at Tupelo, where I received an apology and was told to call a phone number and request to speak with Master Sergeant Tammy Hall. I called that afternoon and on Wednesday.

I’ve left two messages and two phone numbers where I can be reached. No one has called me yet.*

Because I currently depend on my family to drive me places, I went to New Albany today Friday, May 24 with my stepdad and we arrived at approximately 9:30 AM.

There, a white female named Tina was the receptionist. I again explained that I lived abroad for several years and showed her both my expired driver’s license and U.S. passport.

I had two bills with my name on them as well and one of them wasn’t accepted. Tina explained that I need my birth certificate and SSN card. I had both, but I didn’t take my citizenship certificate.

She gave me a sheet of paper with the phone number to a translator that the DPS in New Albany works with. I would like to point out that in 2011 when I first got my U.S. citizen license in Mississippi, I was not asked to do this.

At this point, I asked for her name, which she wrote down. Tina refused to provide her last name and said that if I call and speak with Master Sgt. Hall, she would know who Tina is.

Tina also said that between the time my license expired and today, Mississippi moved on to a different system and I’m no longer in it. I will be asked to pay for a permit and then get a license as if I had never had one.

I also explained that the DPS’ website doesn’t mention anything about requiring a translated birth certificate, having to bring so many citizenship documents, etc. I mentioned that I live in Tupelo, and I should be able to renew my driver’s license where I live.

Tina said the office in Tupelo is short-staffed and that no one in that office can process driver’s licenses for people who weren’t born in the U.S.

I asked Tina why it’s possible for me to travel to other countries with this passport, and why the DPS doesn’t accept it as proof of my citizenship.

“Because it’s Mississippi,” she said.

So just to be clear:

  • If you live in Mississippi and are a naturalized U.S. citizen with the same rights as a white U.S. citizen who was born in the country (in theory), you must pay a translator to translate a document that USCIS vetted.
  • Mississippi doesn’t accept U.S. passports as proof of U.S. citizenship even though the rest of the world does.
  • Mississippi’s Department of Public Safety doesn’t clarify what is acceptable as proof of citizenship, but namely, allows its staff to act as immigration agents who treat legal residents, DACA recipients, and naturalized citizens as second-class citizens by forcing us to essentially pay third parties extra money for a birth certificates despite the fact that USCIS has issued us documents in English that we’ve paid hundreds of dollars for, have passed background checks for, and have been tested for.

Got it.

(For the record, I do plan to take additional action. Including complaints and civil rights suits. I’m not the only person that has gone through this and I believe that speaking up will create an environment that allows other immigrants, Black folks, and oppressed groups to expose daily life here).

*Updated to reflect that I received a call back on Friday at 18:30 (6:30 PM). I was out hiking because I didn’t expect a call back at that hour (most government offices here close at 17hs). I will call them back and update.

Photo above is my property and creation. You can see more in my Instagram

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