ORIGINAL ARTICLE IN WORD FORMAT]
EDITED ARTICLE IN WORD FORMAT]
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
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
"They are determined to make this a difficult process,"
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
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."