The INS Department of Redundancy Department (April 21, 1999)

In my last article entitled “INS: Inept, Negligent & Stupid” I described the confusing and complex hoops one must jump through just to apply for a fiancé visa for a loved one. But that was just a tiny tip of the proverbial iceberg, leading to a potential shipwreck by despair.

At this point I don’t know which analogy or metaphor to choose; there are so many that are applicable. A stuck record staying in the same groove, playing over and over may be one. Or how about the INS being like one of those old 78s played at 33…and…one…third?

It was two years ago when I first got on board the INS paper train and I see no end in sight. After finally getting all the correct and complete papers filled out correctly by the various people and handed into the one and only acceptable INS office that handles this particular kind of INS paperwork, I waited for week after week after week to hear from someone, calling periodically to see if there was any update.

After a couple of months they said, Yes, I had been approved. Approved for what? I don’t know. It takes months to establish these difficult facts: 1. I am a US citizen, 2. I am single. Therefore, my application has finally been accepted at the US embassy in Ecuador for them to send an application for an invitation for an interview to my fiancé.

I waited for another month for her to receive the papers, and since nothing was received in the mail, I called the US embassy in Ecuador. After a dozen attempts I got something more than a recording saying how important my phone call was to them, and for me to please hold on, “Your phone call is very important to us; please hold on” again and again… I was eventually informed that for my kind of inquiry I could call only on Wednesdays between 2 and 4pm when the computers were dedicated to answering visa-type info.

So I tried between 2 and 4pm on the following Wednesday and the next Wednesday and the next Wednesday. At first I tried every ten minutes, but they were busy. Then I got a repeat autodialer and tried 15 or 20 times repeatedly over the two-hour timespan. Still busy. So I called back on a Thursday and finally got to a person and asked if they had a fax number and if I could fax my question. Yes, they said. I was thrilled! I thought: persistence, innovation — that’s the American way! I’ll beat this thing yet. “Oh, and how long will it take for me to receive back a faxed answer as to the status of our paperwork?” “We can’t afford to use the fax,” was the reply. “We reply only by mail.” Falling, shot down and crashing, knowing this could take months, I decided to aim my plane for the US embassy in Ecuador.

Before the next Wednesday I was inside the US embassy with kamikaze-like single-mindedness. Before I went into the visa section, I went to the diplomatic section saying I needed to talk to someone urgently. Upon showing my US passport I was allowed in. I asked one of the Marine guards for the name and number of the person in charge of the visa section. He looked it up and then I asked if I could use an inside line, knowing it would show up as being an inside line and not outside, and the visa section supervisor would be more likely to answer the phone. And he did. I got right to the top and got an invitation to come right over. Lucky for him, he was a sympathetic and helpful guy, because by this time I was a bit hot under the collar. He called the other embassy in Guayaquil, the place where they give these types of visas and interviews and made an appointment for me, although it was for three weeks later.

Knowing the system and seeing his efforts, I was thankful. I wish there were more people like him in this screwed up system. When I told him of my problem with his section and the confusing papers, he got out of his chair and went into the office room where they dispense the applications and asked questions and got some people quite upset. One woman was even in tears. I guess she had spent years handing out the wrong papers, and now this guy (me) was messing things up.

I went to the interview with my fiancé three weeks later and they were very surprised that I showed up with her. The interviewer said it was rare that the petitioner comes to the interview with the fiancé. We got the visa; it took two days of standing in line, but we got it. We got on the plane and headed back to the US.

I should mention here that, as I said before, I had to return to the US in order to apply for my fiancé’s visa. I could not do it there in Ecuador. I had to show two things which I guess I couldn’t do in Ecuador: 1. Proof of my citizenship (passports work everywhere else), and 2. that I’m single. (Sound familiar?) My passport was not good enough even here in the states. I had to show them a copy of my birth certificate; the same one I used to get my passport (?). So I went to San Francisco and got another birth certificate copy; that only took half a day. Then they wanted a copy of any final judgments of divorce. So, since in my case there was something from over 20 years ago, I could either pay a researcher to dig through the files in Santa Cruz or go there myself. Since I didn’t want to pay $40 an hour, I went to Santa Cruz. I found the file number and the next day they gave me a copy of the decree. One trip, two days, two papers.

After that was accepted my fiancé was asked for a mountain of papers. Among the things to bring to her interview was a chest x-ray showing no tuberculosis, and a copy of my birth certificate. Not just her birth certificate, but another one of mine. And any final judgments of divorce.

Luckily I knew about this before I went to Ecuador, having met someone who had been through the same process in trying to bring his wife to the states. So I had a copy of both of those papers with me in Ecuador. But I had to make another trip to San Francisco and Santa Cruz, because I didn’t get two copies the first time I was there. So I got two more copies that time, since I might need to hand them in again because I suppose I could have somehow become an unborn uncitizen in between times. Happens every day, right?

At the interview they did ask to see a copy of the birth certificate and the final judgment of divorce. Then as we were leaving I asked why they didn’t ask about the chest x-ray? They said we show that to the immigration officer in Miami upon our arrival. “I see,” I said. I guess that’s so that if she does have TB she has an opportunity to spread it on the plane and bring it to the US, and then they kick her out and send her back to Ecuador.

When we got to Miami, they never asked to see it. It cost her a week’s wages to get this exclusive, embassy-approved medical check-up and x-ray. We still have the x-ray. Maybe after a couple of years at the next upcoming interview they’ll finally get around to asking for it. If not, we’ll frame it and hang it on the wall.

In Miami, while not asking for the x-ray, they did question us about our visas, as though we had just printed them in the basement the night before. They asked us numerous questions again and again until we missed our plane to California. It was quite entertaining to watch this one inspector sort papers and chew gum at the same time. Or more accurately, chewed gum, chewed gum, and chewed gum, and sorted a couple papers… I’ve never seen someone unwrap a piece of gum so slowly, and so meticulously, and then, with her little finger extended, insert the gum in her mouth as though it were a religious ritual. It almost seemed as though she was daring me and others to complain. But I didn’t.

After arriving in California, about three weeks later a letter arrived from the embassy in Ecuador. It was a response to my inquiry via fax. It said that, Yes, my fiancé is going to be able to have an interview soon, and if she passes that she will get a visa and can come to California.

Let’s see… I can go on a 10,000 mile round trip, spend a month in Ecuador before I can get a yes or no from the INS?

After getting married, we had 60 days to hand in more paperwork proving that in fact we had gotten married and to finalize her status as a conditional resident married to a US citizen. The paperwork we had to turn in asked for, amongst other things, YES!, a copy of my birth certificate, certified of course, like the other ones, and a final judgment of divorce.

In trying to figure out what all papers I had to bring, I called the INS with the usual problems in getting through to them. I called back a second time because it didn’t seem possible that they really wanted another copy of something I’d already handed in twice. But yes, that’s what they said. And this and that and this. I called three times and got three different answers. I finally got to one person who was extremely confident of exactly what I needed because she had worked there for years and done it dozens of times. So, to be sure, I brought everything anyone had mentioned.

I thought I might resist handing in this additional copy of my birth certificate because if I do it shows that I am a slave, right? If they ask for it again, can’t they ask for it seven more times? Ten times? 20 times? It’s no more illogical to ask 20 times than three times.

We went to San Francisco and handed in the paperwork. Half of what I was told to bring I did not need, including papers I was told I needed from the most confident person who had worked there for years and insisted she knew what to bring. But they did want to see additional copies of you know what.

At that time my wife was given a laminated card permitting her to work and get a Social Security Number. They told us that it would be eight to ten months before we would receive in the mail an invitation to come back to the INS in San Francisco and get an interview to receive the conditional residency. This invitation would specify any additional documents which would be required. They did not ask to see a copy of her chest x-ray; I hope she doesn’t have tuberculosis.

Almost 11 months passed and still no notice from the INS. My wife Martha has been learning to drive, after having passed the written test. After going into the DMV to take the driving test, we were told that with less than two months left on her work permit, the DMV would not issue a driver’s license to her. So I called the INS, and after finally getting through, they told me that she could renew her work permit for $100. But that it cannot be done through the mail, she has to come in, in person, in San Francisco, fill out a form, and pay the $100. And since the INS is now serving a limited number of people per day, we would need to be there an hour before they open in order to get in line to get a numbered ticket. What time do they open? 6:45am. It was recommended that we get there at 5:45am.

I also asked why we had not received the invitation? They said it was no longer 10-12 months, but approximately 12-18 months to get an invitation for an interview. In order for her to legally work she must come in and pay the $100 and have her permit renewed, and only with that can she get a driver’s license.

Not wanting to get up at 3am and drive all the way back down there, we stayed overnight in San Francisco in a hotel. All together with gas, food, and fees, it was about $300 just to get the permit renewed to be able to work and be able to drive.

We were lucky enough to get out before noon. We spent over four hours in four or five different lines. At each window we were serviced in about two or three minutes of actual paper shuffling and processing. The rest of the time was waiting in line, or sitting waiting for your name. Most of the people were professional, not out to irritate anyone, just doing their job.

But there was one man who was outright vicious and aggressively contentious, provoking both fellow employees and applicants, ordering people around in a harsh voice as though he were some kind of sovereign lord. He said, in a gruff voice, “Put your papers in the slot in the door around the corner and wait there.” “OK, thanks, how long do you think it might take? I need to put another coin…” WHAM! His hand slammed down on the counter, swinging his arm and pointing his finger toward the door, he said, “I told you to put your papers in the slot in the door!” “But sir, I need to know how long it will take, so I can put money in the meter for the car.” He retorted with greater anger, “Put your papers in the slot in the door and then go do as you like! It’ll take about half an hour.”

I put the papers in the slot in the door, sat down and waited a half hour… an hour… almost an hour and a half passed when I realized nobody was coming out of that door and calling anybody. A number of us were all sitting there.

I knocked on the door. The person inside said, “No one ever calls from this door. They’re calling from over there.” The woman pointed over across about 200 people on the other side of the room and said “That’s where they’ll call your name from; just have a seat and wait.” I was amazed. How was anybody to hear from someone across the room. I wasn’t even focused that way. I was ordered to put the papers in the slot in the door and have a seat there and wait. So I wanted to ask that man who was so nasty if I should sit there or look for someone to call me from a different location. I could see it would be impossible to get an answer from this man; he was too busy screaming at other people. So I went to look for his boss.

After asking a number of people I found the Mr. Siddown’nwait’s boss and filed a complaint against him. I don’t know if that will do any good. I sure hope that man isn’t there when we have to come back for our interview. It’ll be just my luck that he’s the one who’ll conduct the interview and have a good memory. I hope not.

Finally, standing in an area where I could hear my name called, after another half hour we did hear our name called and got the paperwork completed and the work permit renewed and we went home.

Two weeks later, guess what? The invitation arrived in the mail to come to San Francisco and have the interview to receive the conditional residency visa put into her passport. Among the things they want us to bring: another certified copy of my birth certificate, and a final judgment of divorce. I can’t believe it!

My plan at this time is to refuse to hand them a birth certificate that they already have a number of certified copies of. I hope that’s not inviting too much trouble. Some have cautioned me that it is. But what else am I to do? If I bring a fourth copy what’s to prevent them from demanding a fifth? A sixth? A seventh? Who knows? They are out of control.

It’s also my plan to send a copy of both of these articles, along with the names and numbers of the various INS officers that I have encountered and that I’ll encounter at the final interview to various government people. Maybe a miracle will happen. Maybe something will get fixed. Should I hold my breath?

Did any of you see that 60 Minutes segment on the INS last month? They had a segment on how despotic and unaccountable the INS has become in the case of some Iraqi dissidents who werwe brought here by the US government. It made me think that my present problem with the INS is possibly endless and perhaps hopeless. To summarize: there are six Iraqi men in jail in the US who were invited to the US by our government with over 100 other political refugees seeking asylum here who had sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Upon arrival they were put in prison, at first with no charges, then after some inquiries by some helpful attorneys, the INS said they were guilty of being spies. But they presented not one piece of evidence. Their files were closed to any and all who tried to inquire. Even the former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, was denied access as he tried to investigate the charges. As I watched this I concluded there is in fact no person or agency above the INS. Perhaps not even the president of the United States. Certainly not the legislature.

Congressman Riggs told me last year that the INS sometimes responds to his requests, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they don’t even acknowledge receipt of his requests.

Now that 90% of the closely guarded Iraqi dissidents’ INS documents have become released, and since nothing has so far is a basis for spy charges against the Iraqi men, the new charges against them are that they attempted to enter the US without a visa! Which you don’t need if you’re a political refugee, and the US government invited them into the US in the first place! When I hear conspiracy theorists babble about insane plots, I wonder what was their first inspiration? Perhaps they are telling the truth? Perhaps they’ve had an actual encounter with the KGB, er, I mean the INS.

Tell me after reading this second article if you smell a deliberate plot. It is my fear, without premise, that nothing can be done to stop them or call them to account. Are my fears out of place that if my wife, though we have repeatedly jumped through all the hoops repeatedly requested by the INS, could be denied residency and suddenly taken away without recourse or explanation, much less a logical, rational and sane explanation? I wish they were accountable and the laws could be changed so that we the people could sue the government. But until then it’s an adversarial arrangement: us the people, versus them the rulers.

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