Call it From Prussia with No Love.
After living for 88 years across America’s heartland — Renate McKitrick called Kansas home, married an Air Force serviceman and votes Republican — the 90-year-old grandma has traveled from Ellis Island to immigration limbo.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, McKitrick simply wanted to renew her Utah ID card at the South Ogden Division of Motor Vehicles office so she could vote and pick up medications. But stricter screening standards have plunged her immigration status into question, forcing the feds to scour the national archive — in a limestone cave in Missouri — to verify her citizenship.
She was told to check back in July.
“It’s dreadful that I’m being so harassed at my age with my handicap,” says McKitrick, who suffers from macular degeneration. “I can’t see, I can’t walk very well. I just feel put upon. And I’ve lived here 88 years — always voted, paid my taxes, honored the flag.”
With apologies to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, spying seems unlikely with this Washington Terrace nonagenarian.
Neidenburg to New York • Born in East Prussia, McKitrick came to Ellis Island in 1925 when she was 2, ferried by her mother, who was also toting her brother and sister. Her father left their German town for Indiana a year earlier to secure a job and house for the family.
McKitrick grew up in the Midwest. She married and lived with her now 91-year-old husband Bill in Herington, Kan., where he was stationed at an Army air field. The tiny town, in the middle of Middle America, still has a throwback drugstore that serves cherry cokes and vanilla shakes.
In 1946, in Herington, McKitrick received her naturalization papers. She says she’s never encountered another immigration question since.
Prussian or Polish? • When McKitrick turned 65, she needed her birth certificate to receive Social Security. Instead, she got a history lesson. In the post-WWII settlement, Neidenburg fell within the area of East Prussia granted to Poland, and the remaining German population was expelled.
The Social Security Administration tracked down the birth certificate — in Warsaw — but it was now written in Polish.
Back at the South Ogden DMV, 25 years later, the language barrier posed a problem. “They said nobody could translate the Polish so they couldn’t give me a permanent picture ID,” McKitrick explained.
She was first told the state would provide a translator but then received a letter demanding she find her own. “I don’t know how to speak Polish or translate it or anything,” McKitrick continued. “So we went back to the DMV to start over. We met a new lady and she told us there was a discrepancy in my naturalization papers.”
Document mining • To be covered, McKitrick carries her naturalization paperwork, a copy of her mother’s passport and the Polish birth certificate. It’s no longer enough.
“The requirements are a lot different now,” she shrugged. “It’s all because of this immigration that’s up in the air.”
Verification, it turns out, carries more weight on a computer screen than the printed page. That’s because Utah uses the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements or SAVE system, which screens for public benefits eligibility.
Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services(USCIS), says SAVE is linked to Department of Homeland Security and immigration databases, but he notes dormant files — particularly for Ellis Island-era immigrants in the 1920s — would not be in the computer system.
“If it’s been decades, her status is retired in some storage facility — or on microfiche,” Counts said. “It’s unsurprising that there would be nothing in our local office.” So where to look? Try 60 feet below Lee’s Summit, Mo. where the National Records Center houses 4,000 miles of files in a bomb-protected, four-million-year-old limestone cave.
“The first time I heard about it I was surprised,” Counts added. “But there’s quite a bit of record storage there — millions upon millions upon millions of files.”
Records cache • The cave is the national repository for all Department of Veterans Affairs records and large holdings for U.S. Customs,USCIS, federal courts and the Social Security Administration. More than 100,000 file requests are made each year with a one-day turnaround to retrieve the records, according to the National Archives and Records Administration.
To launch her search — and secure her ID sometime this summer — McKitrick was sent to the USCIS office in Salt Lake City.
“I didn’t even know there was such an office,” she said. “They were very nice. The whole thing was very secure, everyone in police uniforms. They had to check my purse before they let us in.
As I understand it, I have to have an alien number. They are looking for the number, I think.”
Counts expects success before July, but acknowledges McKitrick’s plight is rare.
“We certainly understand that even though we are dealing with paperwork and documentation, we are also dealing with a person’s life.”
To that end, McKitrick says she was finally able to relax when the immigration agent assured her she’d be “OK.”
“That was a relief,” she managed with a nervous laugh. “A couple days ago I thought I was going to be deported — to Poland.
It’s so complicated, and it’s because East Prussia was given to Poland. The whole point is we’ve lived too long, I guess.”