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'Pay up,' says Arizona Child Support Enforcement—while revoking the method to do it

My track record doesn't suggest a deadbeat. I have paid $100,000 in child support, and owe another $17,000, on which I pay state-mandated 10 percent annual interest.

Nor does it suggest fleeing responsibility. I have lived in Tucson since getting my first job in 1978. I have no history of evading authorities, debts or obligations. I do not stuff dollars under mattresses or possess foreign bank accounts. There are liens on my home and car.

Much of my federal tax refund is "intercepted" to pay back child support.

Yet the federal government, acting under statute, has revoked my passport. And Arizona, which has the power to restore it, won't.

The reasoning behind that refusal is none of my business. I am told repeatedly to pay up. That is the only solution.

The "stakeholders" in my passport? My ex-wife, who recognizes that I need one to provide child support; and my current wife and my kids, who need me to earn to the best of my ability.

None of this, however, concerns a fervent core of civil servants in Tucson and Phoenix. Just whom they represent is unclear, but we should trust their sagacity. There must be some logic to immobilizing the citizen one is paid to protect. Who's to question the wisdom of the Arizona Division of Child Support Enforcement?

I am a journalist whose work involves Mexico. I worked at one time for the Arizona Daily Star and The Arizona Republic and generally have earned about $40,000 a year. My freelance work today is virtually all in Mexico.

My child-support payments started in 1997. I have always paid more for my sons than ordered. That monthly payment has ranged from as high as $810 to as little as $450. When I have had drops in income, I have acted slowly, if at all. I have "given away" several thousand dollars by not filing for decreases.

My passport? I think of it as I do my laptop: It's a tool I carry to do a job. I have had four in my life. I received the most recent in 2007, and it would have expired in 2017. On a trip to Mexico City in February 2011, the passport was stolen. When I went to request a replacement from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the answer was "no."

Why? I owed more than $5,000 in child support. The rejection letter explained that my passport would not be replaced as a result of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and Federal Regulation 22CFR51.60(a)(1). I had been placed in what is called the "passport withdrawal" program.

But there was an "out," I was told. And that was my state government: Arizona authorities, with a phone call, have the power to restore a passport. That sounded promising.

I gathered tax returns, a list of job assignments and references, and headed to Child Support's location at Kolb Road and Speedway Boulevard in Tucson.

I would make my case four times. The first three visits were wastes of time. The message: "Pay up. Borrow, if necessary. We are a debt-collection agency. We are not here to listen to your needs."

On each of the three visits, I explained that I do not have the ability (or collateral) to borrow, as much as I would like, but still need a passport to work. Each case-worker's response: To get the passport back, I would have to pay in full.

Case-workers handle visits at DCSE first-come, first-serve, so no one worker is assigned to a case. What I thought was an odd policy actually provided a break on the fourth visit.

In early May 2011, I found myself with Sheri Kirkpatrick, who, by chance, had worked in Nogales.

Noncustodial parents who owed more than $5,000 have been reissued passports and allowed to work in Mexico for brokerage firms, assembly plants and trucking firms, she said. Kirkpatrick told me to write a letter to J. Bryce at Child Support's Phoenix office.

Mexico itself does not require foreigners to carry passports to visit border cities, but does require one for travel beyond its 21-kilometer "free-zone" that buffers the United States. Few have cause to enter Mexico illegally from the north, so no one pays much attention to those like me. I slip through. (Mexican immigration service does routinely check vehicles at its southern borders.)

As a consequence, I am, like it or not, an "undocumented" worker in Mexico, and I face fines and jail time if caught. I assume the risk.

The challenging part is returning home. Crossing back into Arizona can be an uneventful 20-second encounter, or it can require a prolonged course in civics.

I am asked by Customs and Border Protection officers at the port of entry if I know that I must have a passport in order to travel to Mexico.

Yes, I acknowledge, I know they think it is "must."

But as much as I wish I had one, I still don't, and here I am, and what are we going to do now? I want to go home.

I faxed a 15-page letter with all of my financial information to a J. Bryce. He or she, like others at DCSE, keeps a deliberately low profile and is inaccessible to the public.

When I received no rejection or acceptance, I called time and again. Those calls are in vain, however, as one enters a DCSE phone system that makes it virtually impossible to reach anyone.

I returned to the DCSE offices and requested they access my account. "It's rejected," was the response.

On what basis? Is there documentation that's lacking? Why? There is no need for a response, I was told. Just trust DCSE that your petition has been considered.

I repeated the process twice and realized I'd arrived at an impasse.

It was time to make a ruckus. I emailed Steve Meissner, the agency's public-information officer, and said I would be reporting about my passport problems. I visited with the staff of U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva.

On July 18, 2011, the phone rang. Patricia Sutton identified herself as working with the "executive correspondence unit" at DCSE, and explained that she worked on high-profile cases. Whether it was from fear of negative press or the inquiry by Grijalva's office was unclear, but I was receiving an accountability no Arizonan would otherwise receive.

Suddenly, DCSE had a voice at its heretofore nonresponsive offices in Phoenix.

The conversation with Sutton lasted 45 minutes, and she was adamant: I will pay the entire amount before I will get my passport back.

Why? There is no explanation. Sutton is empowered to make that decision, and that is the way it will be.

Prior to the call from Sutton, I came across language online that—in a logical world—might have helped. "The non-custodial parent may provide documentation to DCSE in cases where there may be extenuating circumstances, unusual hardship, medical emergency or mistaken identity," it reads.

What did "extenuating circumstances" mean? Might it be applicable to someone whose income is derived from Mexico? I asked. "I am the person designated to decide that," Sutton said. The answer was "no."

I sought further clarification from DCSE and received a letter from DCSE assistant director Veronica Hart Ragland. It was essentially a legal copout. "Examples of hardship or extenuating circumstances," she wrote, "include, but are not limited to: medical emergency or life threatening situation of the noncustodial parent or immediate family member; immediate family member funeral, military deployment, and employment emergency." Now I knew more about what extenuating circumstances were not.

What all of this means is that trials, or hearings of sorts, take place at DCSE, but they are conducted without representation of the party affected. DCSE as prosecutor, judge and jury makes the decision.

Is there any appeal? Anyone has a right to a judicial appeal, DCSE says, and that sounds fair.

Yet, herein lies perhaps the most egregiously cynical treatment government can mete out to a citizen: Yes, a citizen does have recourse. He or she may go to Superior Court and pursue his case. It is that simple. All one needs is a lawyer, which will cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000. Then, all one needs is filing fees, another $225. Then, all one needs is time.

Is it lost on anyone that, if these dollars existed, they would have gone—a long time ago—to the care of two kids?

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