Not far from my office, there’s an Immigration and Naturalization Service Application Support Center. The street it’s on is a little hard to find, in a warren of confusingly laid out one way streets– if you take the wrong turn, you have to circle all the way back around and start all over again. An apropos metaphor for the immigration process, as I understand it– especially since it can take forever to find parking on my block, and if you take the public transportation system, well, the one we’re on has been experiencing disabled trains and signal delays. Welcome to America.
I’ve never gone in to the office, but the front windows are pretty wide, and afford a representative view. From what I can see, it looks like any other busy, entry level government office. A bunch of low-end office chairs in somewhat linear rows. Older wooden benches. Walls and walls of pamphlets and signs in nearly every language known to man. Counters behind which tired-looking clerks of all nations speak with tired-looking applicants. Basically clean scuffed linoleum floors with utility rugs full of sand and slush laid over them during winter.
I think that they have different language groups come in different days of the week so they can arrange the interpreters regularly– Wednesday is for people who speak Spanish, and I think Thursday morning is for Portuguese and all variants thereon, plus Haitian Creole. Thursday afternoon, anyone from Africa, though Boston seems to be having a lot of people from Uganda and Somalia these days. There are people from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan (Monday?) and Chinese Tuesday morning. Friday morning seems to be pretty much all other groups from Southeast Asia, and Arabic-speakers. Friday afternoon, so far as I can tell, is for Canadians, Israelis and Europeans who speak English fairly well– the clerks giving themselves a bit of a break at the end of the day.
Some of the applicants are in traditional costume. Some of them seem fully Americanized. Some are poor. Some seem to be doing very well, with Mercedes and warm coats and nice jewelry. A lot of them smoke outside the front doors, and not just the poor ones. Many, especially those from more tropical climes, seem to be ill-equipped for New England winters, and I’ve more than once seen someone who looks like they were over at the INS office earlier at the outerwear and equipment store buying at least better hats and gloves, if not coats and more expensive things. Someone in the INS office has got to be sending them there, because it’s again on a warren-ous side street a few blocks over– it’s not something you’d find unless you were looking for it.
That something they’re all looking for isn’t in that shabby application support system, but it’s an entryway to something they think they’ll find when it’s all done. After navigating the crazy streets it’s on, they navigate the crazy application process. Hopefully, the second time they come back, it’s easier to find. And that their return trips finally get them to the end of the block and across the main causeway, the easy to travel-road to the larger federal building. That’s where they photograph the people who’ve finished their citizenship class, a heterogeneous group of all nations, and not just your support center language subgroup, and take pictures of the class on the front steps. It happens on Friday afternoons at 3. I get up from my desk to watch that photo session every week– all those Monday through Friday applicants at the back of my building now finding what they’re looking for, only one block, one main thoroughfare away. A chance to stand with people they didn’t meet on their assigned morning. On a main street that you can look up and down– tell what’s coming at you from backwards and forwards. A place wide enough to look up, down, forward and back.