Huddled masses

The rising sun does little to disperse the cloying damp of this foggy morning, but dawn does bring some comfort to the long line of people curling around Dallas' Immigration and Naturalization Services building: They know the office will open soon.

Some have been here since midnight, their jackets wrapped tight, stomping their feet to stay warm and awake. The elderly and the young take turns on the few folding chairs some of the families brought to make the long hours easier to bear. Some parents have left their children sleeping inside cars in the crowded parking lots and check on them periodically. A few sit or crouch on the sidewalks. All are sleepy and tired of the wait.

Everyone here is waiting for a chance to ask INS officials a question, pick up a form, pay a fee, or turn in a form--quick, easy cases that can be taken care of in a minute or two. They all tell the same story: For a chance to get the form or the stamp they need, they are told, they must come early--as early as midnight or 1 a.m.--and get in line.

The INS opens at 6:30 a.m., and one by one the four or five hundred who get here first step into the building, through the metal detector, and up to the guard who hands them a numbered ticket. Ticket in hand, they can sit down inside and wait to see one of the five available immigration information officers. Those who just want to pick up a form are given a ticket to go stand in the form line and wait some more. Usually the sought-after numbers run out around 10:30 a.m., and those without tickets are told to come back tomorrow.

Earlier tomorrow.
Although the fees charged for all INS services have gone up drastically in the past few months, regional offices such as Dallas' have yet to feel the effects of the agency's newfound prosperity.

"We need at least 12 officers to adequately man the booths, and we have been assigned only five," says Bill Harrington, the INS' acting district director. Last year at this time they had seven more information officers in what Harrington calls "term positions," which are temporary. When their contracts expired in September, the Dallas center was not given the authority to renew them, though no new permanent positions were opened.

In the meantime, those in the line outside pay the price for the agency's lack of organization, both in dollars and in time.

Matt Kottoon, from India, took his place in line around 1 a.m to check the status of his father's alien registration card application, better known as a green card.

"You have no choice, you have to stand here. It is the only way," he says. The first time he tried, he arrived at 5 a.m and waited more than five hours before the INS officer at the door informed him no one else could be seen that day.

Behind him, Erika Martinez waits with four of her family members to get their passports stamped so they can visit their native Mexico. This is her fifth time in line.

"You can do this by mail, but then it costs you $90 per person," she says.
Rudolphe Simonet, a University of North Texas student from Gabon, has been in line since 1 a.m. This is his second time here, and he just needs to pick up some information on green cards. Huddled next to him is Claire Carabeuf, a French UNT student. She needs an application form, and this is her third try at getting it.

The green card application fee that Simonet and Carabeuf would have to bring along with the completed forms--assuming they are able to get the forms--went up from $130 to $220 last October. All other INS fees also increased at that time; many doubled or tripled. A replacement for a lost citizenship certificate, for example, went from $65 to $135. A petition to classify an orphan as an immediate relative--used in cases of international adoptions--went from $155 to $405.

In spite of INS Commissioner Doris Meissner's January 1998 promise not to raise the cost of naturalization until the agency improved its record of customer service, that fee went up on January 15, from $95 to $225, plus a $25-per-person fingerprinting charge. Now, a family of five applying for American citizenship has to come up with $1,225. Before January, it would have cost them $475. These amounts do not include medical exams, photos, or other required expenses.

In an effort to beat the new fee, a record number of applicants--253,000--filed nationwide for citizenship in January; by the end of March, immigration officials announced that the number of cases backlogged nationally had reached an unheard-of 2 million. Though the increased fees caused the most recent spike in applications, the glut has been building steadily since July 1996, when Congress passed stringent immigration laws. Fearing the loss of federal benefits and equal treatment under the law, an unprecedented number of immigrants started applying for citizenship.