- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The carpet is dirty beige. The chairs are gray vinyl. Parked at the front door is an airport-style metal detector. A banner covering one wall of Room 100 in the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Arlington proclaims "A Century of Service: 1891-1991." Another notice "An officer will not see you unless you have an appointment notice or a referral" also is posted.
A crowd of weary-looking people, wearing a hybrid of jeans, veils and saris, have draped themselves across chairs or are seated on the floor. The room does not have the ambiance of a dentist's office no reading material or a cute aquarium.
Welcome to America, sort of.
The September 11 terrorist attacks spotlighted many of the holes in America's immigration policies. Legal immigrants say they encounter all sorts of roadblocks and that obtaining vital documents such as green cards takes years because of a backlog of 4.5 million applications to the INS.
Few Americans have any idea what it is like to immigrate to the country, but one of America's most popular culture observers, Mary Pipher, describes the experiences of foreigners in Nebraska in her new book, "The Middle of Everywhere."
Mrs. Pipher's best-known book is "Reviving Ophelia," which is about teen-age girls. As a psychologist offering free therapy and informal counseling for immigrants, she spent three years helping 150 to 250 refugees from northern Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and Sierra Leone.
What newcomers need, she says, is Americans who can be "cultural brokers" to instruct foreigners on everything from deodorant to driving.
"Every refugee needs an American friend who says, 'I am going to help you deal with this system,' meaning the housing, schools and the health care system, which is another nightmare for people," she says. "I probably taught 10 people how to drive."
Mrs. Pipher has few kind words for the INS.
"The refugees call it the dragon you must slay to enter the gates of heaven. But you cannot deal with it," she says. "It is Kafkaesque because it is impossible to find out all the procedures and rules. Everybody has INS problems. It is impossible not to have them because the system is so broken.
"I think there have been many suicides because people could not figure out how to be in compliance with the rules. They get threatening letters in the mail saying if they are not in compliance with some order, they risk being deported."
Some toll-free numbers are available to check on an immigrant's status, but the four service centers around the country handling green-card applications have toll numbers with calls requiring lengthy waits.
"It's very difficult to get through to them," one INS staffer said after a 20-minute wait on a toll-free line. "They are very busy."
Most immigrants thus opt for face-to-face interviews to ascertain their status. Outside the Arlington office at 4420 N. Fairfax Drive, they must stand in line beginning at 6 a.m. or earlier, as only the first 150 persons will be served. Doors open at 7:30 a.m. Anyone missing the cutoff is told to come back another day. On Saturdays, only the first 75 persons are accepted.
Faiza Chalabi, a teacher who immigrated from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in 1997, said she arrived at the INS office early one morning and made the cut, then waited seven hours in an upper room for a clerk to help her. When she finally was able to ask about the status of her application for permanent residency, she said, she was given wrong information.
It took letters and calls to two lawmakers from Virginia, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III and Sen. John W. Warner, both Republicans, before she got help. A congressional staff member explained that paperwork for the entire family had been misfiled, causing an additional wait.
Ironically, she and about 6,000 other Kurds who were in immediate danger from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein because they had aided allied forces had been brought to the United States under the auspices of the U.S. government in 1996 and put on the fast track for permanent residency.
The INS claimed it had sent Mrs. Chalabi a green card last fall. When she contacted Mr. Warner's office to say she never received the green card, a skeptical staffer told her to look harder.
When a search of her local post office proved fruitless, Mrs. Chalabi was told she had to pay $130 to refile her application and wait perhaps another three years for her card to arrive. When her family of six first applied for green cards in August 1998, they had to pay $280 each for fees, fingerprinting and medical checks.
"And each year we had to pay $100 for work permits," said her husband, Najeeb Ahmed. "It's been very difficult."
Well-heeled immigrants, especially those sponsored by U.S. employers, can get fast-track approval for temporary visas with the help of immigration lawyers to the tune of $3,000 to $15,000. Complicating matters are the "notarios," fraudulent individuals who, while claiming to help Hispanic and Asian immigrants, actually fleece them.
The longest waits for visas and green cards are in California, says Rakki Dhanoa, a New York immigration lawyer. Not much better are the lines for immigration applications at the INS district office at Manhattan's Federal Plaza, which she calls "a sea of people."
The wait for a green card should be 10 to 12 months, says Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for the INS. Congress is considering legislation to split the agency in two: one to go after illegal immigrants and the other to help legal aliens establish themselves in the American milieu.
"Congress has made this agency what it is now, and Congress and INS need to fix it," says Judy Golub, senior director of advocacy for the 7,800-member American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"Congress has been very ambivalent about the INS. They've given them impossible mandates, then not funded them. Like in 1998, Congress told INS to take over the fingerprinting for the naturalization program in seven days. That's not enough time to take over such a function. Just to point the finger at the INS doesn't take into account the good they do."
INS spokesman Russ Bergeron says the agency receives 8 million applications a year for services that are funded only by user fees. Those requesting asylum pay nothing.
"People look on our services in the way they'd look on a commercial enterprise where they can quickly turn around its revenues and profits," he says. "But no commercial service enterprise could last long," he added, operating under the strictures at the INS.
Mrs. Pipher is unfazed by such explanations.
"The INS people are so overburdened," she says, "but there is a culture of rudeness and insensitivity there. I've been in those lines in the winter, when the INS doesn't even open the doors and people stand in the line at 5 a.m. in 40-mph winds getting hypothermia."


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