Thursday, March 12, 2009

Interesting Day at the U.S. Immigration Center

This morning we took a woman from the African nation of Burundi to the immigration Center in Detroit to get fingerprinted so that she can receive her green card. it is officially called the USCIS Application Support Center, an inauspicious looking building on East Jefferson. Actually it is in a strip mall next to the Army Recruiting Center and the Payday Loan office. A Thai diner and donut shop is in the same string of connected buildings.

Driving from Toledo to that location is quite the nightmare as I75 ends in downtown Detroit during construction. Just ends. Of course, I knew that ahead of time so I was armed with my Google Map that took me north of the city and then down to the river. Naturally, there was fly in the ointment as the I94 ramp to I 75 was closed, forcing me to make some quick navigational rebooting. After some serious curves and many potholes, there we were smack in the heart of downtown Detroit.

There wasn't much traffic on Jefferson because, I suppose, the city is in the death throes, with the Big Three auto industry in dire straits. Rather than a massive traffic jam in the 'olden days' of Detroit, we zipped through as if it were a small town. We headed east on Jefferson and found the shopping strip and spotted the sign 'Support Center' above the door. Luckily our Burundian friend was able to spot the office because those two words could mean many different things.

A guard pointed our friend to a desk on the left and my wife and I took one of the 50 straight-row folding chairs on the right. A TV with "DO NOT TOUCH" droned away in the corner with some silly movie that no one was watching. The walls were gray cement block with a few cheap posters nailed to them. Our friend came back with a yellow card with a large "M" on it. "I have to wait until they call "M," she said. A family of 5 came in next, the father headed to the check in desk. He left with 5 clipboards and 5 pencils. He gave one to his three children, his wife and himself. They probably came from Syria or Lebanon. Each, when finished, handed it back to the dad who checked each line to see that it was correct.

An elderly Asian couple were already waiting, ticket number in hand. "Number 4129" the woman at the check-in desk called. A man in the back jumped up and was told to sit in the other room, farthest chair on the left. "4130" jolted a very dark-skinned man to his feet, Same message, on the left. A young Asian couple entered, father pushing a buggy, mother holding a 2-year old. When the father stopped the infant inside began to cry. He motioned for his wife to get the clip-boards while he soothed the child.

Letter "O" the woman at the desk called, and a tall blond man followed a lady to the other room. "I'm letter M," said our friend. "Doesn't M come before O?" Well, of course it does but those rules didn't apply here. I suggested that perhaps the letters were random.

"4131, 4132, 4133, 4134" were called and all but one of the family of 5 rose to enter the other room. The father stopped to inquire about '4135' and the desk-lady motioned for the eldest daughter to come with her family; she was quite relieved.

An hour had gone by and I decided to walk over near the guard to look into the 'processing' room. My wife cautioned, 'They said everyone was to be seated here." "I know," I said as i walked there, tired from sitting in the car and on the hard and uncomfortable steel chair. I pretended to read a sign on the wall, and quickly shot a glance in the 'secret' room on my way back.

"Letter M" a stocky uniformed woman announced. "Finally," said the Burundian. She had told us that she had a 10:00 appointment, but apparently everyone else there received the same message. Twenty minutes later she came back and we were allowed out of our chairs, and left the building.

The starkness of it all reminded me of how many immigrants to America faced those same stark conditions after landing past the Statue of Liberty. I also thought about those anti-immigrant groups who whine about 'those people' polluting their version of white, Christian America. Lots of thoughts went through my head as I sat on that  metal chair.

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