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Matt McIntosh's long wait for Lady Liberty

January 06, 2000

Instead of "about" he says "aboot" and he prefers ice hockey to football, but on cursory inspection those are about the only un-American things you'd immediately notice about Dr. Mathew McIntosh.

Yet until late last month, the 46-year-old director of the Wellness and Cardiac Rehab Center at Hagerstown Community College was, dare I say, a foreigner. Canadian, to be exact.

For 15 years he'd tried to become an American citizen, and for 15 years his government of choice put him off, in what has to be one of the strangest and funniest stories of perseverance on the face of ridiculousness that ever was.

"They've been doing this since Ellis Island," McIntosh said of the immigration process. "You would think they would have it down pat."

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Not quite. A native of Ontario, McIntosh attended Kent Sate in Ohio before accepting a teaching job in the Bahamas in 1979. As a citizen of Canada, he wasn't subject to all the stuffy American travel restrictions and he roamed frequently to Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and throughout the Caribbean.

He returned to the U.S. through the port of Miami in 1981 and went to work on his doctorate at Oregon State. Three years later he applied for American citizenship and immediately got a taste of what was to come.

"The first thing they looked at was my passport, and they started asking a lot of questions," he said. Uncle Sam was instantly suspicious of anyone on such easy traveling terms with the homelands of Castro and Ortega.

He answered the questions, but then found himself subjected to a new challenge: Prove he'd worked in the Bahamas. That wasn't easy in a nation with no income tax paperwork and nothing we know of as a pay stub.

Time passed and McIntosh made his case, but by now Uncle Sam had new issues. By coincidence (McIntosh says it was coincidence at any rate) his arrival in Miami in 1981 was within a week of the Mariel boat lift when Castro cleaned out his prisons and sent these undesirables to the states.

More questions, more answers, more paperwork and more delays, but finally McIntosh was able to prove he was not the product of a Havana caliboose and things were back on track - until the government turned up evidence that McIntosh's father may not have been processed properly when he came to America from England in the '40s. Perhaps he was a Nazi? A communist?

The government demanded answers from his father, which McIntosh said his father would have probably been happy to answer were he still living, which, unfortunately, he wasn't.

The years, meanwhile were rolling by. Finally though, in the late '80s, everything seemed set. Until the arcane Pennsylvania system of government raised its ugly head.

McIntosh married his wife Lou Ann in Blair County, Pa., where for some reason marriage licenses are issued through the Orphans Court. That arrangement may make sense to the Pennsylvania government, but it made no sense to the U.S. government.

Immigration did a further check and learned the couple had met in the Bahamas. And if there's something every good immigration officer learns at birth, it's that if a couple meets in the Bahamas and marries in an Orphans Court it spells subversion with a capital sub.

"They asked if it was a marriage of convenience. I told them we had three kids, how convenient was that?" McIntosh said.

Not good enough. They hauled McIntosh and his wife to separate rooms and began grilling. "They asked what's your wife's favorite color? What side of the bed does she sleep on? What kind of toothpaste does she use? What was the last movie she saw?"

More time passed. It seemed there finally was not another question that the government could possibly think of to answer and by 1990 everything was in place and McIntosh was set to be sworn in. Then he got a message.

The government had lost his file.

Everything had to be redone - not easy, considering some of his key references had by this time died or moved to areas unknown. But for the rest of the decade he rebuilt the file. And the government kept coming up with new questions, such as "Why did your uncle's daughter marry a Korean?" or excuses, such as "Sorry, our processing center was moved to New England."

February 1999: Another try. McIntosh was told to report with all his paperwork and a copy of his fingerprints. But the processor didn't like the way the Hagerstown Police Department had taken the prints.

Around him McIntosh saw foreigners who couldn't relate in English where they lived, or who thought "Give me liberty or give me death" was the rallying cry of Patrick Swayze, getting their citizenships. When he first began his quest in 1984 an applicant had to be prepared to explain the 13th Amendment. Today all they had to do was name the president. It was surreal.

"I thought I'm educated, I'm married to an American, I have a family, I make a contribution to the community. Why is this happening to me?" he said.

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