Heidi Dietrich
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UN Conference

One month anniversary: how have things changed?

Beat Memo


Latino Film Festival - [download edited Word doc]

Mountain View Worker Center
[original version]
[edited version]

Undocumented Workers lost in WTC
[original version]
[edited version]




They begin lining up at 8 Monday evening. Some carry rubber mattress pads and blankets, others no more than a shoulder bag. The first few can stand under a covered area near the doors of the San Jose Immigration and Naturalization Services. The rest rely on plastic bags and jackets if it rains.

By late night, the line winds around the building and through the parking lot. At one time, portable toilets stood at the edge of the parking lot. Now, the people must run to a nearby Denny's or use a section of the parking lot.. As a result, the lot reeks of urine.

"It's disgusting because it's so dirty," said Australian Jill Davidson, who camped out a week ago because her son needed a green card renewal. "You don't know what you're lying on."

This is what it can be like if you're a foreigner and you want to live permanently in the United States.

Night passes slowly. Most of the people speak Spanish, some English, and those who can understand each other share stories. The Tahitian woman whose wallet and identification were stolen. The Indian couple who needed new visas. Some are here for the second or third time.

Jose Suarez camped out here a week before. That time, he didn't arrive until 10 p.m. and took a spot in the middle of the pack. When morning came, a good 350 to 400 people were waiting for the doors to open. The lucky ones received numbers. The others - Suarez included - found that a night on cold pavement was for nothing.

This time around, Suarez isn't taking chances. He arrives at 7:30 p.m. and claims the spot at the head of the line. For the first half hour or so, his only companion is a homeless man named Junior. Junior speaks Spanglish, smells of liquor, and calls himself an "original wetback." Offer Junior 20 bucks and he'll hold a spot in line for you till morning. No one would think of challenging the transaction.

Saving and trading places in line is a given out here. Often, men spend the night on the pavement to save places for their wives and children. In the morning, the family shows up with hot breakfast.

Suarez once gave his coveted covered spot in line to a woman with a baby. It was raining, and he worried that the child would catch a cold.

Junior shares the INS lot with a homeless woman. Her favorite time of day is 7 a.m. The doors of the INS open and out walks a government employee to raise the American flag. As the flag is hoisted up the pole, the woman waves and blows kisses to the crowd. She believes that the people are there to see her. The crowd waves back. For most, this isn't their first INS camp out, and they are familiar with Junior and his friend.

Once the INS employee hands out numbers, the first 30 can pass through the door. A guard frisks everyone who enters and checks bags. No food or drink is allowed in the INS - no exceptions. During his first trip to the building, Suarez brought his girlfriend and baby girl. A guard demanded that his girlfriend hand over the juice and crackers in the baby's bag and grew irritated when she tried to explain in Spanish.

"He told my girlfriend that she was stupid because she doesn't speak English," Suarez said.

Davidson witnessed the difficulties of language barriers. According to Davidson, INS employees working the booths told people that they needed to wait for someone who spoke their language.

"It's so humiliating for them," Davidson said.

Speaking English doesn't guarantee a easyvisit, though. Davidson and her son were sent to a local photo shop because the photo they'd brought was inadequate. One centimeter too much of the boy's cheek was showing.

"They are determined to make this a difficult process," Davidson said.

Sharon Rummery, Director of Public Affairs in the San Francisco District of the INS, says that the process has recently become easier. In August, the INS began allowing immigrants seeking permanent resident status to apply by mail. According to Rummery, the move has significantly cut back on volume at local INS offices.

Rummery acknowledges that some applications - such as green card renewal - must be done in person. Since the INS won't give out local office phone numbers to the public, immigrants have few options. This reporter found no way to bypass recorded messages. A national toll free number led to an actual person, but the operator refused to pass on any names or phone numbers.

When Davidson first learned about camping out at the INS, she was shocked, and did what most immigrants wouldn't think of doing. She hired a lawyer. The lawyer told her that camping out was her only option.

Rummery claims that camping out is no longer necessary. She says that since August, the entire line has been served by 9 a.m.

Suarez and Davidson disagree.

"Last Wednesday, I didn't get in," Suarez said. "They say no more and close the door. The rest go home."