New York Diary: 26 Federal Plaza

WRITING - John Bloom

The line forms at sunrise. If you arrive at 26 Federal Plaza after 6:30, you're already too late. The building doesn't open until 8 a.m., but the queue already contains a hundred people, and there are several hundred more likely to arrive before the security door opens.

This is our modern Ellis Island, the New York headquarters of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an imposing white high-rise just six blocks from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. The FBI is headquartered in the same building, and this streaming mass of brown faces, yellow faces, olive faces and faces of deep purplish black are in some respects the FBI's greatest nightmare right now. They all have visa problems.

They're all, to a greater or lesser extent, frightened right now. And no one has time to see them.

They are almost entirely from the developing world. Latins, Asians, Africans, Arabs. It's not that Germans and Frenchmen and Irishmen don't have visa problems, too, but they tend to hire lawyers and get friends to lobby Congressmen. All the white faces have their affairs settled through complicated legal filings and by appointments in upstairs cubicles and hearing rooms.

For these people that's not an option. They don't have the money, and in many cases they don't understand the complexity of the process. Their English is either limited or non-existent, so they usually bring a friend along to translate and provide a second opinion as to the meaning of what they'll be told.

An Ecuadorian man has brought his whole family, including two young children, because he wants to impress on the INS the emotional anguish of his loved ones. His father is dying in Quito, and he wants special permission to travel there so he can be at his bedside. Normally a "temporary alien"--a person who's legally in the country but hasn't received his green card yet-- can't leave the country without forfeiting all his rights and sometimes making it impossible to return to America. The man asks questions of everyone around him: "Should I go to second floor or ninth floor? One man said 11th floor. What's on 11th floor?"

But it will be a long time before he reaches any floor, much less speaks to an actual agent. Foreign nationals are not allowed to enter 26 Federal Plaza by the main doors. They have their own special six-man security detail, with a super-sensitive metal detector and a guard who goes over each body with an electronic wand. The pace is glacial--up to two minutes per person. The line snakes back and forth under a temporary tent structure, to protect the petitioners from the cold, so that they're constantly moving close to the magic door, then away again as the queue folds back on itself. And all the time a marshal scans the tired anxious faces, barking instructions at the shuffling mass.

"Remove your coats now!" the security man screams repeatedly. "Empty your pockets and put everything in the pockets of your coat. If you have a knife or weapon, leave now and get rid of it or we will take it away from you. I have a very nice collection of weapons. You will be caught and you will not get your weapon back and you will be arrested. Remove your coats now! Do not wait until you're at the metal detector. Start emptying your pockets now, and put everything into your coat."

But these people have heard it all before. Most of them have been here dozens of times, in the same line, going through the same procedure. They don't look at the security man. Very few of them are brave enough to even ask him a question.

Most of their problems are thoroughly mundane, and yet impossible to resolve. An Eritrean woman was granted temporary asylum two years ago, but has never received any further instructions in the mail. She can't apply for permanent asylum until she receives a certain document. She worries that the change of address she mailed to INS was never attached to her papers. She has repeatedly tried the INS information line, but it's always either busy or gives her a recording.

When she finally makes it to the second floor--where all "inquiries" are dealt with--she'll be directed to yet another snaking line, and on a good day that line will only take 30 to 45 minutes. Three INS agents work this line, listening to each person's question and then deciding where to send them to have the question answered. If what the person needs is a federal form--there are hundreds of them, all baffling if you've never seen them before, and all making you subject to criminal prosecution if you fill them out wrong--then he's given a number and told to wait at the north end of the vast room. If he's checking on the status of his case--many INS applications are simply lost somewhere in the system--then he's given a different kind of number and told to wait in the south end of the vast room.

A digital monitor overhead tells them how many numbers are ahead of them. Meanwhile they're told to fill out a form, giving a written reason as to why they need to ask the INS a question. The minutes tick by. First-timers grow frustrated that, after three hours, or four, they still haven't been able to ask their question. The sole INS agent they've spoken to has asked only about the nature of their question. Anyone attempting to speed up the process, or ask how long it will be, is sternly ordered back to his church-pew seat. People who bring in coffee or food are ordered to throw it out.

All around are bank-teller-type windows, 30 or 40 of them, and behind each one is an INS "inquiry" agent. "One forty-seven!" an agent calls, and a confused Hispanic man and his wife look around, not sure where the voice came from, scared that they'll lose their place. Immediately everyone comes to their assistance. "There!" "Over here!" "Go quickly!"

Throughout the day there are little dramas played out. A male agent suddenly booms, "Does anyone here speak Portuguese?" When no one comes forward, he tells the man, "You must speak to us in English. We're only required to speak to you in English. You must get someone to come with you and speak English." It's hard to tell from the man's face whether he understands or not. It's slowly dawning on him that he must return another day and start the process again. A Mexican woman asks if he speaks any Spanish, but the agent decides that three languages is just too many to deal with. The man is turned away, his question unanswered.

"UN-GWILLA-MONSO!" shouts another agent. "Is Un-Gwilla-Monso here?"

No one answers. No one responds. Whoever it is, he can't recognize the pronunciation of his name. He doesn't know it yet, but he's lost his chance.

When you do make it to the bank-teller window, you're allowed one question and one question only. The agent takes your written form and normally only half-listens to the actual question. He takes the information from the form and types the numbers into an airline-style computer and hopes that a status report will appear. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. If the computer provides no information, the applicant is told that he must put a full version of the question in writing, and that he will be answered by mail "within a few weeks."

Everyone knows that these answers never arrive. At least half the people waiting are inquiring for the third or fourth time about a question that was supposed to be answered by mail-- but the mail never comes.

But even a third inquiry, or a fourth, receives the same instruction. "You will be answered by mail." If anyone becomes angry or refuses to leave the window, the agents are quick to yell "Security"--and instantly two uniformed guards appear. They tell the person that he MUST leave, and they walk him to the exit.

Sometimes you're given an answer to your question, but the answer itself begs a further question. "Your application for permanent resident status is at the interview-staging phase." This means the person has been approved for an interview and must wait for the date of that interview appointment to arrive in the mail. But unless you have some advanced knowledge of bureaucratic English, you're unlikely to know the precise meaning of either "staging" or "phase." "Permanent resident status" you would know, simply because you've heard it hundreds of times by this point. It's the precise equivalent of "green card."

At other times you'll be sent to another floor, where more specialized agents deal with issues of asylum, parole, hardship and the like. The Ecuadorian family is eventually sent upstairs to a smaller room where they are instructed to wait in a line of about 15 people--the higher you go in the building, the shorter the lines get--and to give their names. They're placed on a list and given a form to fill out, detailing the precise nature of their request. What they're seeking, as it turns out, is something called "emergency advance parole," which allows you to travel outside the country and return even though your papers haven't been processed yet. In recent years the green-card approval process has become so lengthy and cumbersome that almost everyone eventually needs to request advance parole, simply to retain the most basic ties to their home countries.

But there's an ominous sign in this room: "All Advance Parole Applications Must Be Submitted By Mail."

The man's wife notices the sign, but hope springs eternal. The man dutifully fills out the form, and includes a letter from the hospital in Quito stating that his father is in critical condition and not expected to live long. On the previous day the family went to a storefront translator in Queens and paid $40 to have the document converted into English. He attaches all the paperwork to the paper full of scrawled pidgin English.

As 4 o'clock approaches, the tension rises throughout the building. All INS agents leave at 5, regardless of who's waiting or whether they've been seen yet. This is the time when the security presence rises and the incidents at the bank-teller windows become more intense.

"But she didn't answer my question!" an Asian man pleads with a guard.

The agent has vanished. She's gone into the back room. So the man is attempting to get another agent to answer the question.

"You have to go now," says the guard gently.

But the man can't move. He has to talk to someone. He tells the guard his problem, and the guard listens patiently. "I don't know where she went," says the guard sympathetically. "I'm sorry."

For those who are here for the first time, there's an almost palpable mistrust, if not outright hatred, of the agents. But as time passes--as a person goes through the INS procedure for the tenth or the twentieth time--a certain bond develops between the bureaucrats and the seekers of green cards. The agents are obviously tense, overworked, caught up in the same impossible system, and their faces show it. They must leave at 5. To stay after 5 would be to allow the absolute hopelessness of it all to overcome them. They must make the appearance of finishing something, so that tomorrow morning--the line forms at sunrise-- the new day will appear to have some order.

Their surliness protects them. Like prison guards, who don't want to know that much about inmate heartaches, they need the protection of Procedure.

The agent's expression is deadpan when the Ecuadorian man explains, at 4:45, that his father is dying and he needs emergency advance parole.

"We rarely give emergency advance parole," says the agent, "and we must have all those cases before 10 a.m."

The man asks if he can come back tomorrow before 10 a.m. "Your father is alive?" asks the agent.

Yes he is, says the man.

"We're not currently granting advance parole for sickness. We can only grant it if there has been a death in the family."

But can he try tomorrow, the man asks.

The agent tells him he can try, but that he should submit his application by mail. Sickness applications have to be sent through the mail. He's unlikely to get his parole.

And then his time is up. His one question has been answered. He talks to his wife, and they agonize over whether to come back tomorrow, to mail in an application--and yet they know there is no time for that.

There is no time for anything at 26 Federal Plaza.