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…