Out in the Cold

An Afternoon on the INS Line

Marisa pulled the collar of her leather jacket tight against her neck as the wind gusted over Federal Plaza at Broadway and Duane Street last Monday afternoon. She'd been standing in line for two and a half hours in the 30-degree cold to get into the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and still had not made it into the heated, plastic-tent hallway set up in front of the door. Cooling her heels—freezing them, in fact—along with some 200 others, she shuffled her feet in a vain effort to get warm. "I've been here almost 10 years and I still can't get used to this," said the 34-year-old Trinidadian, who works as a home health-care companion to an elderly man in upper Manhattan.

On any given day, the queue of people waiting to conduct routine business with the INS wends up Broadway and turns the corner, stretching more than mid-way up Worth—a/k/a, according to a little blue street sign, the "Avenue of the Strongest." The appellation wasn't meant for the vast multinational assembly that occupies the sidewalk during business hours, but it could have been. The hundreds of people who pass through that INS office daily are the builders, servers, haulers, engineers, filers, diggers, experimenters, and minders who keep America moving.

According to a report released by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University last month, recent immigrants accounted for more than half the growth in America's labor force over the past decade, helping to drive the economic boom of the '90s. In the Northeast, the study found, people who have come to the U.S. since 1990 generated all of the labor force growth in the last decade, filling positions in restaurants, factories, and textile mills, as well as in skilled blue-collar, engineering, scientific, and service industries. Contrary to popular perceptions, nearly one of every four new immigrant workers held a professional, management, or technical position in 2001-2002. Andrew Sum, director of the labor market center, told The Washington Postthat "our economy has become more dependent on immigrant labor than at any time in the last 100 years."

Immigrants outside the Federal building wait for hours to transact routine business.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Immigrants outside the Federal building wait for hours to transact routine business.

The center has not studied, though, what it costs the economy every time one of those workers has to spend the better part of a day in line at the INS. Mike, who, like everybody who spoke to the Voice from the line last week, didn't want to give his last name, still had plaster dust on his boots after the six-hour construction shift he'd put in before coming to the Federal building at noon to fill out an application to bring his wife over from County Clare. Kwame, an executive secretary from Togo who had taken a personal day, rubbed his delicate hands against the cold as he waited to "just make sure some things are in order." Mehwish, a student, was holding a place for her Urdu-speaking mom (off warming up in a nearby deli), for whom she had come to translate a request for a visa extension. And Peter, an attorney from Australia who needed to file a change of address before moving to another state, watched his breath condense in the cold air as he let out a sigh. "In seven years of living here I have never had a pleasant experience with the INS," he said. "But what can you do?"

They'd been out there for more than two hours already, and word from those exiting the building after their curt audience with the INS was that the wait on the inside could be even longer. And then, once a request has been filed, it can languish in the bureaucracy for ages. According to figures compiled by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the processing times for such administrative procedures as getting a travel document, securing work authorization while awaiting a green card, or becoming a permanent resident can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.

Since December, when new laws requiring men from particular Middle Eastern, South Asian, and other Muslim countries to register with the INS went into effect, the gridlock has only intensified. New York did not conduct the mass arrests that California INS officials carried out against men from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and Libya complying with the December 16 registration deadline. But according to local immigration attorneys, the demands of the new paperwork have slowed the crawling system here almost to a halt. "In New York at least, the INS hasn't made any major hires of people to conduct these registrations," says attorney Christina LaBrie of the immigration law firm Cyrus Mehta and Associates. "So they've had to pull people working on adjustments of status and other projects." Apart from what she regards as the uselessness and discriminatory nature of the requirements, LaBrie objects to their impact on the agency's functions more generally. "Now applications that take two or three years to process will be delayed even more," she says.

The next registration deadline hits this week—January 10—and affects non-citizen men from such countries as Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Somalia, Tunisia, and Yemen. But it's not until February 21, the date by which Pakistani and Saudi nationals must register, that New York offices will face their biggest influx. The Pakistani community in Midwood, Brooklyn, alone is estimated to be upwards of 150,000.

As LaBrie notes, "people tend to leave these things to the last minute," and indeed, less than two weeks before he was required to be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed about his presence in the U.S., Anis, a 26-year-old waiter who won permanent residency in a green-card lottery and came to New York at age 19, was in line to apply for a tourist visa for his mom back home in Tunisia. Asked about the pending deadline for registration, Anis shrugged and smiled. "Right now I'm just worried about seeing my mother," he said. Of course the line always has a good share of petitioners who have been caught in a notorious INS run-around. Carlos, 21, was keeping his sense of humor. With a scarf wrapped over his ears like a snood and secured under a baseball cap, he explained his peculiar plight. Born in Peru to U.S.-citizen parents, he's been living in the U.S. for the last eight years and is currently a senior at Brooklyn College, majoring in accounting. Last year he applied for citizenship. The INS took his $250 application fee and administered the test in June. He passed easily. But no sooner had he handed in his paperwork than an INS official told him he was already a U.S. citizen by virtue of his American parents and had no need to make a claim or take the exam. Still, his $250 was not refunded. He applied for a passport, shelling out $50 for the privilege. His request came back denied because, a letter insisted, he is not an American citizen. "So I'm freezing out here because I don't know what I am," Carlos said. "They don't know what I am, either," he added, noting that he recently received a summons for jury duty in the mail.

Yukiko, a young woman ahead of Carlos in the line, couldn't help laughing at his story, but declined to tell her own. She wrapped her naked hands around a steaming paper coffee cup that promised, "We are happy to serve you." Whether that would be the case once she made it inside remained a question.

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