Huddled masses

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"The agency's priority right now is naturalization," says Harrington. "That is where the lion's share of positions are being placed. We will continue to ask for officers, though, so we can be more efficient as far as the number of people we can see."

But the problems at the agency run deeper than understaffing or backed-up cases. Why, for example, do those who only want to pick up a form need to stand in a first line for hours in order to get a number for the form line only to be handed the papers by a member of Catholic Charities, who cannot answer INS-related questions? Why not make the forms easily available, like IRS forms, which can be picked up from public libraries?

"Having forms outside would make it too easy. This is about access," says Thomas Osang, a German waiting toward the end of the line. His green card has been approved but hasn't been printed yet, so he needs a temporary work permit to be stamped into his passport.

Harrington contends that "you have to go through and get a number to keep track of the forms that are issued," although it is not clear how making people wait in line would do that.

"I understand they have so much work to do, but still they could get better organized," says Silvia Boero, an Italian teacher trying her luck with the long line for the fourth time.

In 1992, she met Donald Ledbetter, an American who ran an arts-and-crafts shop at Camp Darby, a NATO base nestled in the hills between Pisa and Livorno, where she taught. In 1994, they married and moved to Tuscany. Four years later, Ledbetter wanted to try life in the United States again, so from Italy, Boero applied for a green card in January 1998. The couple settled in Denton.

More than a year has passed since Boero's application. It was approved, but she still hasn't received it. To work, she needs a work permit stamped in her passport. The one she got when they first arrived has expired, so she is in line for her second. Her job training with Denton ISD starts on April 10, so she knows she must come back to this line until she gets her stamp.

Osang, who shares Boero's problem, feels the INS creates some of its own problems by being so inefficient. If the green card takes longer than one year to print, he asks, then why do temporary work permits expire in less than a year?

"They know we desperately need these things, so they know we will do no matter what, even sleep on the sidewalk," Boero says. "If we were livestock at a fair, we would have gotten better treatment. And then that terrible word they have, aliens, as if we were green Martians with antennas."

Her first attempt was on March 25. She took her place in line at 5:30 a.m., but was turned away at 10:30 a.m. when all the numbers for the day had been given out. The next day she came a little earlier, but "when I saw the people already there, sleeping in their blankets, I got a feeling I was not going to make it," she says. Boero stayed anyway, only to be turned away at 9:30 a.m., when, she says, they closed the office in order to attend the funeral of a staff member.

"With all the respect I have for this deceased person, I don't see any reason to shut the door in front of a bunch of people who need respect also," she says.

She returned on March 31, only to be turned back again. On April 1, deciding she had had enough, she got to the INS at 1 a.m., armed with a jug of coffee and books, and settled in to wait for morning, this time closer to the beginning of the line. As 7 a.m. rolled around, her position seemed promising. Meanwhile, the line continued to grow, coiling around the building as hopeful applicants joined in. Boero eventually got in, only to be told her green card had been mailed last summer. She received a temporary work permit. The employees were polite, though, she notes.

"Just because we really need these permits doesn't mean we can be treated like this. The whole system is counting on it," she says. "They [INS] say well, they [the immigrants] need to be here, so they won't say a word, and we can keep on doing whatever we want, and nobody will raise hell. Well, wrong. I am not speaking just for myself. I live in Denton, I can come any time I want to, but there are people here who barely speak English and have to come from far away and spend the whole night here. If the economy is doing so well, why don't they hire more people to help out?"

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Juliana Barbassa