On a trip to Florida in 2017, my husband Richard and I were invited to sit at a table with two strangers at a crowded Denny’s in St. Augustine. One of the women, a C.P.A., a U.S. veteran, AND a commercial pilot, had recently received her U.S. citizenship after 18 years of patiently waiting out the process in her native Barbados. Her quest for citizenship reminded me of my experience with the Immigration and Naturalization Service twenty-four years ago.
In June 1995, I remarried, and my son Andrew and I moved from little Wellsburg, West Virginia to San Jose, California, where Richard and I blended our families. I eventually
discovered that one of my new sons, 7-year old son Kevin who was adopted from Peru as an infant, had never been naturalized as a U. S. citizen. Richard’s former wife, Kevin’s adoptive mother, had gotten the form but hadn’t filled it out or gathered the documentation. In November, I started the process.
Since the form I had was six years old, and since this was before the Internet made information on every subject imaginable readily available, I began by trying to locate the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I’m sure I should have known that the INS was a division of the Justice Department, but I didn’t. (I might have failed the naturalization test!) I started calling offices in the Federal Building and eventually got a nice secretary in the U.S. Attorney’s office who gave me some phone numbers.
Please understand that you did not call the Immigration and Naturalization Service without a good book, thick newspaper, or a video game handy because you were going to be on hold anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour and fifteen minutes. No lie! After struggling through an interminable menu, pressing eighteen buttons on the phone and hearing every message in English and Spanish (even though the very first message said, “Press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish now.”), I finally was able to give my name and address to some recorder which promised to send the form for Kevin’s application. “Yeah, right,” I thought, “that voice message tape is probably never checked. Someone comes to work each morning, hits the ‘erase’ button, then goes to the break room for a cup of coffee.”
Amazingly, three weeks later the form arrived, the same one I had, but that was okay. My faith in our government was restored. I filled out the form, and with Richard’s help, I started gathering all the documents the form demanded. We had Kevin’s Peruvian birth certificate, green card, parents’ marriage certificate (Richard and former wife), Richard’s divorce decree, child custody declaration, and Richard’s passport. We lacked current passport-like photos of Kevin which we had taken. I made copies of everything and sent off the completed form with all the other “stuff” and a check for ninety dollars on December 5. I thought, “Won’t this be a great Christmas stocking stuffer for Kevin, the right to vote in a Presidential election someday?” Twenty days, ha! What was I smoking?
In the last week of January 1996, the application form, documents, pictures, and check all came back with a note that said I had used “the wrong form.” (Remember it was the form the agency had sent to me, and it was also the one they had sent to Richard’s other wife back when.) Instead, I was to use form N-600 (which they had kindly enclosed), and incidentally, the process would now cost $100.
That night while I was cooking what was certainly some gourmet delight, Richard went through the mail and started to read form N-600. The first line on the form written in bold-face type said, “This form is not for children adopted by United States citizens.” We were back at square one!
The next day I spent that aforementioned eighty minutes on the phone waiting to talk to a real person who was fluent in English and well-versed in the INS-form jungle. Finally, I was told I needed form N-643, but the office to which I was speaking only supplied information! I’d have to call the Form Order Hotline for good old 643. I dialed the 800-number and went through the usual litany of “Press 1 for whatever. Press 2 for something else. Press 3 for who knows what,” and was finally informed by a taped voice, “We cannot process orders for forms at this time. Please call back tomorrow.”
“And play push the button, pull your hair out, and scream, ‘Screw you,’ at a recording,” the voice should have added. That was on Friday.
On Monday I decided the heck with trying to get the form from the Form Order Hotline, which had not even been lukewarm. Instead, I headed for the Federal Building in downtown San Jose. When I arrived, a line of immigrants snaked outside the big building and around the block! Luckily, I had brought a book, and I took my place behind a family of Hispanics, beating out an Asian family by a good eight paces, as the line continued to grow.
Time passed, and the line moved slowly, but the day was sunny and dry. After ninety-five minutes, I got to the door only to discover that a long line continued inside the really large room, too. There were tons of chairs, and electronic, red numbers were flashing from boxes mounted on the wall in several places around the room. The boxes directed people to various cubicles and counters. I eventually figured out where to get a number, and soon a chair emptied. I snatched it. Sixty-five minutes later, I was at a counter explaining that I needed an N-643 form. The lady (possibly an automaton as she was so stiff and formal) said she didn’t think they carried that form (two hours and forty minutes down the drain?). I begged her to look. From the rows of pigeon holes behind her, each filled with stacks of forms, she found three N-643s! I was handed one of the precious forms and was on my merry way out the door, passing a line outside which was even longer line than when I had arrived.
Of course, N-643 required only some of the former documentation and three pictures of Kevin instead of two. Previously the photos were to be of Kevin with his head slightly turned. Now the pictures were to be facing front. Kevin was persuaded, possibly forbidden, from getting a Mohawk haircut, and I had his pictures retaken. I copied the new documents–Richard’s birth certificate and Kevin’s adoption papers. Filing was now cheaper–$85. I debated whether to put everything in the mail or go stand in line. It was now February of 1996, but we lived in San Jose, and the weather was beautiful. I opted for the line.
By now I had acquired a new sense of patriotism and an appreciation for having been born an American citizen. Since Kevin was a minor, he wouldn’t have to deal with the dreaded citizenship test, reputed to be extremely difficult. I kept wondering, “If we all had to go through this process and possibly take the test, how many of us would still be aliens in the country of our birth?”
With the completed new form, all the support documents, and Kevin’s new pictures, I trudged back downtown to the Federal Building and took my place in line. Arriving early in the morning, the line moved quickly, and I was inside taking a number within twenty minutes. After a pleasant fifteen-minute wait in a chair for my number to flash on the wall, I found my assigned cubicle, and finally, I was face-to-face with someone who had the power to do something.
Unfortunately, she was Asian with a heavy accent. I reasoned that she had to be a U.S. citizen. After all, she was working at the INS and processing citizenship applications, but I struggled to understand her and answer her questions. I thought, “She had made it through this process, so darn it, I can, too,” and we carried on. Yes, I had the right form. No, the amount for adopted children was no longer $85 but $80. Why hadn’t I made a copy of Kevin’s green card (because the instructions specifically say not to); where were the translations of the birth certificate and the adoption papers? What? The instructions didn’t mention translations. When she told me I needed translations, I understood her just fine. She handed me updated instructions. Another delay. Great process, huh?
Back at home, most of the new instructions were easy—write a new check, copy the green card, pull out the translation of the birth certificate. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an English translation of Kevin’s adoption papers, a very long document that my seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish wouldn’t dent. Fortunately, we did have dear friends, Jim Hartline and Ede Ashworth, in the Foreign Language Department at Brooke High School back in West Virginia, where I used to teach. During some of the snow days that winter, the two Spanish teachers translated the adoption papers—when they weren’t shoveling snow. When the adoption translation arrived in San Jose in mid-March, I typed it up and steeled myself to go back downtown and stand in line again.
My biggest fear now was that some bored bureaucrat had made a little project for himself and had changed the form again! I was also beginning to wonder whether Kevin would ever get to vote and whether he really needed to vote. He had a green card. He’d be able to get a job and a drivers’ license. He’s a boy. Driving would probably be more important to him than voting anyway. However, I persevered.
With the long adoption paper translation typed and copied along with all the other stuff, I headed back downtown early on March 26, 1996. I had a good book, sunblock, sunglasses, and a newspaper. I encountered the longest line yet—out the door, along the building, around the corner, and down the block! Unbelievable.
Someone in line explained that legal aliens had until March 20, to replace their green cards with the new, improved variety the government had cooked up. Of course, having lived in America for some time now and principally in California, where no one is ever on time, the immigrants had not observed the deadline and had chosen instead to panic and storm the INS on the day I had blithely chosen to deliver Kevin’s papers. This is somewhat of an exaggeration, but hundreds of people with limited English skills and heavy accents stood in line that day.
I was in front of a woman in her late fifties from Russia. (I’m guessing. She may have been younger and had endured a hard life.) She’d lived in the United States four years and only got to this country because an embassy in Moscow (Ours? Theirs?) had declared her a refugee. I never understood why she was declared a refugee. I’m not sure she knew how this came about either. A son was mentioned. This was her first trip to the INS (I didn’t have the heart to tell her this was her first of many trips), and she had come for her citizenship application form. Boy, was she ever behind the right person! I became her mentor, telling her what to expect and which form to request. I used a lot of charades and sounded like Tonto. Looking through the window, I pointed and said, “Get number there.” I held up fingers trying to indicate numbers. She smiled and nodded. I pointed to the boxes on the walls and read the flashing red numbers. “See numbers? One, five, eight? You know, numbers?” She smiled and nodded. I pointed to the counter and said, “Take number there,” while “walking” two fingers on one hand across the palm of the other hand. She smiled and nodded. I think she understood. I think she thought she understood.
After that, the guy behind her from Greece had a question about his form. His English was better. Whew! His form looked fine, nice penmanship, except he had used the day/month/year format instead of the month/day/year format. No panic. He had brought a spare form, just in case. He started filling out the new form.
Next, the person in front of me, a darling, little lady from Thailand wanted to know if I could quiz her on the Constitution to pass the time. What? I didn’t know one amendment from the next. I started to panic, but she handed me a pocket edition of the venerable work. Time seemed to pass more quickly than usual.
When my coterie and I reached the door, there was a new treat in store for us. Before passing through the door (which had taken me one and a half hours to reach!), everyone had to have their bags searched and their bodies scanned with a hand-held metal detector. Now, really! What terrorist would wait in line one and one-half hours to blow up a federal building? I wish I could say that I felt a lot more secure knowing people were being searched, but all I felt was tired of waiting.
Passing the scanning with flying colors, I arrived at the window to get my number at 11:57 a.m., and the number slip informed me there would be a “58-minute wait. Please have a seat.” “Ha!” I thought. I was #762, and they were on #751. There would be no 58-minute wait. The numbers always went faster than that. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the lighted numbers were stopped on #751. “Because of lunchtime,” a nearby person quietly told me. Hmmm. Government employees apparently all have to eat at the same time.
I have said before that the waiting room was pretty large. It contained 164 chairs. I had plenty of time to count. It wasn’t quiet, but it wasn’t really noisy either. There was kind of a hushed busy-ness. People were sitting, standing, and speaking softly in every language imaginable. Several were conferring with lawyers whose wrinkled shirts looked slept in. The rare word that was discernable above the din was not recognizable as English. Occasionally, a woman stuck her head into the room from a door that led to a corridor and announced, in a voice dripping with authority, a name that required trilled “r” sounds or a lot of glottal stops. Those were the lucky ones, people who were going for their citizenship interviews, nearing the end of this God-forsaken, labor-intensive process.
Having ushered my Russian friend through the line and pointed her in the right direction. She waved her forms at me as she went back out the front door. Had she bypassed the number system? Did she even have the right forms? How did she escape so quickly? I looked for a seat.
Knowing I had time, I started to read. After about an hour, a very agitated woman who had been stalking the room sat down beside me. She and I were the only blondes in the room, and somehow I knew I was in for it. She had been looking for a kindred spirit. She was there to get a new green card, and she had received her number at 10:23 a.m., hours ago. The lighted number box for replacement green cards was not flashing new numbers. Lunchtime for them, too, I guessed. The woman was furious. In a very loud voice directed at me she said, “Vat do dey esspect me to do? Vy are dey so terrible? I vait. I VAIT. Dey do nossing. NOSSING! Dey do NOSSING! Vat vould you do?”
Quietly, I told her I would go to the window where numbers were given out and check to see if I was still okay with the number I had.
She stood, and under my breath, I said a little, “Whew!“
I was relieved a little prematurely. She turned back, leaned over me, and loudly asked, “You vould do dat? Go back up dere? Dis is in-umon. VAITING! VAITING! Always I am vaiting! DEY ARE TERRIBLE. DEY MAKE US GET CART, DEN DEY MAKE US WAIT.”
“Please, don’t yell at me,” I said, again very quietly and very controlled, “I’m a citizen, and I’m waiting, too.”
“I DON’T YELL AT YOU, BUT DIS I CAN’T STANT.”
“No, really,” I wanted to say, “you are yelling.”
I actually said, “Yeah, I think you’d better go and check on your number,” hoping someone would take the woman’s seat as soon as she moved toward the window. She thought for a moment and finally left. Those who had turned in their chairs to watch us gave me a knowing nod and turned back around. The room had become completely quiet during our little interaction. People now returned to their private conversations, while I tried to disappear in my book. The number box at the application window had started counting again, but it was stuck on #760 for twenty-five more minutes.
I had waited for an hour and forty-five minutes while thinking about the parking charges I was accumulating and hoping I had enough money to cover the cost to retrieve my car in the cash-only lot. It was finally my turn. Number 762 was finally flashing. I headed for the window and handed over my folder. Fifty-eight seconds later (No lie. It took 58 seconds for the guy to leaf through Kevin’s documents!), I was told to proceed to the cashier’s window. Progress, real progress at last!
I jubilantly arrived at the cashier’s window and was greeted with a sign which read, “Back in Twenty Minutes.” Why do people do that? Twenty minutes from when? Five minutes ago, ten? I felt like screaming, “Vaiting! Vaiting! Vy do dey make us vait?”
I didn’t know what to do, so I stood there in front of the window, and soon a line formed behind me as each person checked out the “Back in Twenty Minutes” sign. By this point in the quest for Kevin’s citizenship, another wait in another line was nothing. Finally, the blind went up. The very same guy, who took only 58 seconds with my folder of forms and documents twelve minutes before, was now the cashier! I gave him a check for $80, got a receipt, and was told to expect a letter scheduling an interview appointment in eight to twelve months.
So a long wait lay ahead, but I wouldn’t have to stand in line again!
In November 1996, we learned that Richard was being transferred to Memphis, Tennessee. Sometime between trips to Memphis for house hunting and school hunting, helping the boys finish up their school semester and sporting events, getting packed, and all those other things that relocation entails, I wrote to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Jose requesting that they transfer Kevin’s file to an INS office near Memphis. I’d been led to believe that the closest office was four hours away from Memphis in New Orleans. Receiving no reply by the time we moved during the first week of January 1997, I wrote the San Jose INS again in mid-February. The business of settling in our new neighborhood substituted for standing in line. Time crept by while finding new doctors, dentists, a church, shopping places—oh, and taking apart the garbage disposal in the kitchen sink. The slow-draining sink had become a no-draining sink! The former owners had put corn husks down it, and I fixed it.
Over coffee one morning in early March, I read in the paper that a lot of aliens had been rounded up by the INS in Memphis. “Ah, ha!” thought I, “where aliens are ‘rounded up,’ there’s surely an INS office or the remains of a UFO.” A look in the government section of the phone book yielded a phone number. I called the number only to learn that it had been disconnected and no forwarding number was given. Maybe the INS had moved to New Orleans after all. Not being one to be thrown off easily, however, I called the Justice Department (see I had learned something). A kindly soul gave me a new number and an address and counseled me to go to the office as, “You’ll get nowhere on the phone.” She knew of which she spoke.
For the heck of it, however, I called the new number and got a recording saying their number had been changed. (“Again?” I thought. “No wonder this process takes so long. All they ever do is change their phone number.”) I called the new, new number and got a long, detailed recording telling me their new office address. (“Oh, I thought, “they move a lot, too? Harder to hit a moving target?”) The message contained a litany of buttons to push for every question people might have for the INS—except what I wanted to know. The message also gave me a number to call for the “Ask Immigration Information Hotline.” What the heck? I’d call the hotline. I dialed again and was greeted with a ten-option message, the last being “0 for live assistance.” Hooray! I pushed “0″ and received the following, “Due to special circumstances this office is not able to provide live assistance; however, pre-recorded answers to frequently asked questions are available by redialing this number and choosing from the menu. Thank you.”
“Argh!” I yelled at the recording. “You are so not welcome. I’ve dialed scads of numbers, listened to a ton of recorded messages and options, and I still haven’t talked to anyone. AND nowhere on your &*#%@^$ menu of popularly-asked questions did my question come up.” I simply wanted to know, “Do you have Kevin’s records in Memphis? Have you ever heard of him? Will he be a citizen before he’s a father? What button should I push to get those answers?”
I could see the writing on the wall. I would have to go to the INS office, albeit a new one, with the accompanying long lines. The next day I was up bright and early, and when I got to the Memphis INS office, I knew I was in for a long day because there were no parking spaces in the building’s lot or the lot of any nearby building. I found a space on a distant side street, fed the meter, trudged back to the Federal Building, glumly climbed the stairs, and entered a waiting room, where about twenty-five defeated-looking people were sitting on those cheap brown, plastic, stacking chairs that practically wrap around you when you sit down. Things were looking up, however, because twenty-five people ahead of me would be better than the hundreds I had waited behind in San Jose. One lady glanced up at me and pointed back to the door where I had just entered. With a quizzical look on my face, I pointed to the door. “Yes,” she nodded, so I went back out and discovered another door.
I opened this new door to a room with a maze taped on the floor. It marked the route the line of patrons was to follow. The maze led to a half wall of glass with two people in official INS uniforms sitting behind two holes in the glass. But, get this! There were only three people in line! Three! Amazing! I waited about eight minutes before reaching the hole in the glass. I explained that I had requested Kevin’s file be transferred to Memphis but had heard nothing. The employee asked to see Kevin’s green card (which incidentally is not green at all but rather a laminated white card with his picture and alien number on it), AND I had it with me, as well as every document pertaining to Kevin’s life to date.
The guy went to a computer and zip, zap returned with the news that Kevin’s file had
arrived in Memphis on February 20. Next, he informed me that they were presently working on the cases of adopted children filed in November of 1995. I had filed Kevin’s papers in March of 1996. It sounded like it couldn’t be too long until we heard from them regarding Kevin’s interview and eventual swearing-in. At that point, I knew I was an eternal optimist. I believed this was very promising, and should any more problems arise, I could handle them. I would sit back and patiently let the INS do its thing for Kevin.
On April 15, my mom flew down to Memphis for a nine-day visit. I would fly back to West Virginia with Mom on April 24, to attend a Cousins’ Reunion. On April 16, a letter from the INS arrived announcing that Kevin’s interview was scheduled for April 24 at 9:00 a.m.! Things were moving forward.
Early on the morning of April 24, Mom and I left for the airport. A little later, Richard and Kevin headed for the INS office for Kevin’s citizenship interview. Richard called that evening to tell me how the interview went.
“Hi, Honey,” Richard began. “How was your flight?”
“Nice and uneventful,” I said. “How did the interview go? What time did you finally get called in?”
There was a slight pause. “9:10.”
“What?” I said. “Did you say 9:10? You had to wait all of ten minutes?” I could not have heard correctly. I’d never waited a mere ten minutes for anything throughout the entire process, not even for Kevin’s haircut! Ten minutes wasn’t enough time to get even a little numb on those rock-bottom chairs in an impersonal waiting room. Ten minutes wasn’t enough time to get panicky (or in Richard’s case irate) thinking the case might not be called that day. This didn’t seem fair.
“I know,” said Richard sheepishly. “I thought about all the time you waited in line.”
“Oh, well. How did the interview go?”
“The interviewer was a guy from New Jersey. He had a broken arm. We got along great.”
“Two Jersey boys, huh?”
“Yeah, we just kibitzed. Kevin didn’t have to answer any questions. He just had to print his name on a certificate.”
“That was it?”
“Yeah,” Richard said sheepishly. “That’s all he had to do, and…now he’s a citizen!”
“What? He’s a citizen? When will he be sworn in?”
“There isn’t a swearing-in. It’s an administrative procedure. I told that guy I was going to be in big trouble! I told him you’d done all the work, stood in the lines, been accosted by a German woman, then I got to see the result. I’ve felt guilty all day.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d waited all that time for the big event, one of those emotional swearing-in ceremonies with flag-waving new citizens on the nightly news, and Kevin became a citizen in a little office with his father as witness, while I was on my way to the airport! I absolutely could not believe it.
Not witnessing the actual, citizen-bestowing non-ceremony was both a letdown and a relief for me. The good news was that Kevin was a U.S. citizen, which, after all, was the goal. He could eventually vote! However, I got something, too. I now have immense respect for our immigrants who go through the naturalization process, and I count my citizenship as one of my most precious possessions.