Melvin Stewart sat behind a screen at the end of the line marked “New Immigrants Only” as I made my way back into the USA through SFO. Mel, as I would come to call him after our friendship blossomed, was about 5’9″, African American, stout and knurly. He had a beard, mustache and wicked sense of humor. I obviously was tired after spending 11 hours at the ‘back of the bus’ coming in from London and by the time a family of 6 who were lined up in front of me finished at the counter with Melvin, I just wanted in and wanted to go home. I sauntered up, big brown envelope at the ready, smiling and full of the joys of springtime.
“Good afternoon Sir” Melvin began, “and you are coming into the United States because…?’ he stopped dead in his speech.
I looked at the illuminated red sign directly above his head which read, “NEW IMMIGRANTS ONLY” and then I looked back at Melvin. I did it again, just for effect. His poker face never wavered. I knew then that this wasn’t going to be easy and even though I wanted to say something like “what the fuck do you think I’m coming into the country for you asshole”, I said to him very politely, “I just got the paperwork for my green card in London and was directed to this line by that sign up there” smiling again as I pointed to the red neon above his head. His interrogation began in earnest. I’d heard it all before and was frustrated that yet again I was being subjected to further investigation.
“Where have you been, how long were you there, who did you see in London, what do you do, are you married, do you have kids etc, etc”
So tedious, so unnecessary, and so frustrating.
When Melvin was done with his standard questioning, we began chatting, as normal people would, about life, love and other great mysteries that couldn’t be solved in the 5 minutes we spent together. By the time he was ready to stamp my passport allowing me entry into the US with a Visa that would last 180 days, ample time to obtain my green card in the mail one would have thought, Mel and I were best buddies and arranging to go for dinner that very next week. We turned out to be the greatest friends, a friendship that lasted for too few years unfortunately, but friends we were and with my new freshly inked stamp inside my British passport, I exited into the customs hall to reclaim my bags.
One would think that would be the end of my immigration woes, just like it will be for the 5 million or so who will receive and amnesty from Obama in the coming months. No, unfortunately it wasn’t. It was just the beginning, and when I think back now to the aggravation I was about to receive, it pisses me of greatly that the 5 million who will receive this amnesty from our President will not have to go through the grief, financial hardship, verbal abuse, and most of all the sincere dislike of anything governmental or ‘red tape’ appropriate, that I had to endure. Maybe it doesn’t piss me off, perhaps it just infuriates me that I did the right thing, went the right way, spent more than the right kind of money, received less than the right degree of acceptance, and I did it the way it was supposed to be done. So why shouldn’t they? I know there are plenty of you out there saying, ‘well that’s exactly right, the system is broke to let’s let them all in and the system will be fixed’ NONSENSE! The system is broken because those who have abused it, broke it! Politicians tend to feed off the weak in this case and are desperate to become ‘do-gooders’ . Although not everyone in the House supports the idea of this amnesty, the issue goes much deeper that just telling someone, “come into the country now, you’re going to be made very welcome” The situation is made worse by the fact there’s one rule for one and one for another. It took me 9 years and a ton of cash to get a green card, but if I’d been Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian or come from another ‘persecuted’ nation or sect, I would have received my documentation in the drop of a hat. There would have been fewer interviews, no cash outlay, and certainly no 9 year wait. Unfortunately it’s one rule for some and one for the others. There’s even a third rule for those in the know, as my next blog will point out. No matter what, the system is entirely flawed. From start to finish, there is NO system, as proven by this ‘amnesty’, and that’s what I find so frustrating.
I was told my green card would arrive in 3 months max. 5 months later, still no green card and my concern then became one of visa renewal to ensure I could keep traveling in and out of the US. This my friends is where the story became rather silly.
I’d tried calling, writing, emailing, and going in person to the Immigration building at 444 Washington St, San Fransisco. It was becoming a real issue. My visa was running out, my green card hadn’t shown up and my life was about to get very difficult if it didn’t make the transition. I needed that card. I’d tried everything, I’d even spoke to Errol my attorney, but no one could help. I was in the hands of that great unknown called the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, aka, the government! I was about two weeks out from losing all foreign travel privileges when one afternoon my phone rang. It was Melvin.
“I’m out of SFO, and I was promoted to INS in Washington St”
“No way!!!” I shouted. “I need you! When do you start?”
“Next Monday” he said.
Well that turned out to be a complete lifesaver. Melvin started his new job on Monday and I went to meet him for lunch on Tuesday, the day after he’d begun. I explained my issue and hey presto! Within 20 minutes I had my new visa! He’d walked into a room and updated it to last another 6 months. If he hadn’t done that I would have had to go to my local INS office in San Jose, take a number and sit all day in the hope that someone would see me. I was home and dry, or so I thought. It never works out that way though, does it?
The day Melvin died, I was in my office thinking that I had to call him when my phone rang. His wife gave me the news and as suddenly as she was there, she was gone and the line went dead. No Melvin, no green card, no friendship anymore. He passed of cancer. No waiting around, dead within weeks of diagnosis. Poor Mel. not only had he met my family, my kids and my friends, he’d been a huge influence in obtaining assistance for me when all seemed lost. I still miss him.
5 more months passed, no green card. I needed to go to the INS office on Monterey Rd San Jose. I had no other options this time.
To describe this INS office as a ‘shithole’ would be an understatement. This is the system, or at least it was when I was going through all my trials and tribulations. You show up ay 5 am. They don’t open until 8. There have been people sleeping outside all night. You join the line. People, probably illegals, go up and down the line selling drinks and food. You cannot leave that line. The first time you arrive you don’t know that you need a seat to make the 3 hour wait until opening time bearable. It’s a zoo, the car park is huge but old and waterlogged, even though it never rains here. People come from all walks of life, but the majority of those waiting are Hispanic. By 7 AM the line is at least 300 yards long. By 8 Am there’s a man who comes from inside the building and begins walking down the line counting bodies and determining who won’t be seen that day. The numbers are obviously calculated from years of experience and the shut off number can mean the difference between being seen around 4 PM or not at all and therefore having to come back the next day. The first time I showed up it was 3 PM in the afternoon and after some discussion with the security guard, I was educated on what not to do and how not to do it, enabling me to show up at a set time and be seen. This office works on a numbers system. You come, you take a number and you wait and wait and wait some more. I ended up going there more than three times, each time I arrived at 5 AM and each time I never left until after 4 PM. My honest opinion about this place is reflected very kindly in that one word description above, but my true feelings towards this office and the people who ran it, are just too hard to explain. My blood still boils even today, some 14 years later, when I sit down to write this.
At 8 AM the doors opened and in we filed. I took a number and sat, and sat and sat. I read, I read some more and eventually, just after lunch I was called. I got to the window and explained to the officer my predicament. His words were astounding.
“You are at the wrong place, you need to go upstairs, which is appointment only, and they will sort this issue for you.”
“Upstairs?” I was flabbergasted. “What’s upstairs?” He passed me a form, told me to call, make the appointment and then come back. What a waste of a day.
I went outside, called the number from my cell phone and was immediately placed on hold. Surprise, surprise! They never did answer. I held for over an hour, put the phone down and headed home defeated. Where was Mel when I needed him. Heaven I suppose, probably sitting behind a desk turning back all those who’d arrived illegally and should be sent back to Hell!
After two days I finally spoke to a human being, although I use that term loosely.
Appointment made, I returned, this time at 7 AM for an appointment that was at 10 AM. Yes, you read that correctly. The system didn’t allow anyone inside that INS building after 8 AM. As I mentioned, they counted them off to avoid not only congestion, but also disappointment. Even with an appointment I had to be there early, just not that early!
I was sent upstairs where I waited, then I waited some more. I was seen at 10 AM prompt. To the best of my memory, here’s the conversation.
Me, “I need a Visa renewal on my green card”
Him “Where’s your green card?”
Me “Hasn’t shown up yet”
Him “Well I can’t extend that visa, just be patient it will show”
Me “No, it’s been a year, I’ve had this renewed once already and I travel a lot, I need to have it renewed again”
Him “You’re in the wrong department. You have to come back tomorrow, take a number downstairs and wait in line”
Me “I did that already, they sent me to you”
Him “No one sends you to me, you need to make an appointment”
I was beginning to see what the intelligence required was to stay in this job!
Me “Can I see your boss?”
Me “Because you have no idea what you are doing!”
Him “Please leave sir. NOW!”
Two days later I came back at 5 AM and took a number and at 4 PM when I got to the front of the line they told me I had to make an appointment to go upstairs. I was very unhappy, quite dejected and definitely annoyed to the point where I wanted to burn the place down. Surrounded by sweat, BO, ignorance and frustration, no one could get me to the right person, AND not only that, I spent three days of my life doing this to get absolutely nowhere. And then, just as I was about to give up, my savior arrived! In all its Green glory, when I returned home that night, there is was, shiny, perfect, beautiful although it was PINK not fucking green! My card!!!
I was half way to citizenship. Green card followed by US passport is the order of events, but you need to be a green card holder for between 3 to 5 years before you can even apply for a passport and I was some way off being able to do that. Obtaining a passport would be yet another ordeal, probably as great if not greater that the story I just told you, but that’s for another day.
My heart goes out to those who are here by default, but come on, let’s face it, to let them all in for free and without penalty of process is, in my opinion, so very wrong. They SHOULD have to go through what every other immigrant has to go through. Legal and biding are the results and even though it was painful and elongated, the process is rewarding. Obama you are the fraud, not those who you’ve reprieved. You never had to go through this to get your passport but perhaps you should have do so just to see how difficult it is and how frustrating the whole system is. I want you, Mr. President, to return my money, the money I spent becoming part of the process. If 5 million are to get an amnesty, what about the previous 100 million from the past 150 years? What about us, the one’s who did it the right way, the legal way, the only way we knew?