Secondary Inspection is the second round of immigration that is typically reserved for people who have immigration “issues” when they arrive in the United States. For example, the first time I went to secondary inspection I queued behind a lady from some part of the world where having a visa issued by the U.S. State Department was essential for travel into the United States. Unfortunately, she did not have said visa, so here she was in that part of the U.S. that is the secondary inspection area.
What, you ask, was I doing there? Well there’s a category of immigration that comes with automatic secondary inspection.
I submitted my Permanent Resident (a.k.a. greencard) materials shortly after transferring from Bell Labs to Xerox PARC. At the time I filed for the greencard, I had also filed for and been given the final extension possible on my H1-B (you can only hold an H1-B visa for a total of six years). I had two years to get the application for my Greencard approved. Surely it couldn’t take longer than that.
Two years later my H1-B ended and my greencard had not been processed. I entered a new phase of maintaining legal status in the country. Now I would, until my greencard was processed, apply, each year, for two documents.One to allow me to legally work in the U.S. and one that allowed me to travel in and out of the country for business. Each is a separate document, process and fee. It was during this period that I applied for the interim work authority, while my greencard application was in progress, but because the system could not process either application in tim, I also had to apply for an emergency interim work authority. Three filings, processes, and fees to maintain my legal status in the country.
It was the travel documents that triggered secondary inspection with each return into the U.S. I found the visible sending to Secondary Inspection, quite embarrassing, since you have to do it in front of all the other people in the immigration area. Hopefully you can imagine being sent to a backroom unlike most other people… I wondered whether they thought I was trying to somehow abuse or go around the system, I was actually trying to do everything to the letter of the law. Secondary inspection, for me, was like participating in Mastermind (made harder by having just gotten off a 8-10 hour flight). I was taken to a small interview room and asked a series of questions about my time in the United States. By this point I had well over a decade of experience. I was apologetic that I could not remember the first date I’d ever arrived in the United States, I explained that I was 7 and that I was a B-2 dependent visa holder and that Jimmy Carter was the serving President and that I’d entered the U.S. through JFK. I could remember the date and place of my second entry (Los Angeles, 19th Sept, 1991 about 9pm), but I had trouble remembering whether it was the 5th or 6th entry into the country that was my first entry through Chicago’s O’Hare. After about 15-20 minutes of this, I was allowed to enter the U.S. Each time I travelled in, I travelled on a document issued by the INS that they trusted so little that they wanted to check me out at this level of detail.
And so I continued to wait, until the shredding news story came to my attention. Apparently the California Service Center had discovered a new means of reducing backlogs by shredding applications. Of course, my application was pending at the California Service Center. So, a new question crossed my mind, had my materials been shredded (I only got the answer to this when I went for my naturalization interview, it took two officers to carry my materials into the interview room! My lawyer told me she’d never seen a file so thick, a rare moment of immigration pride for me).
I decided to call the INS help line. Three days later I’d not managed to get through. (I called recently regarding my naturalization process, and got through, so kudos to the USCIS for that!)
It was at this point that I decided I needed the help of my citizen husband. We wrote, three times each, to our local Representative, Nancy Pelosi, and to each of our Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. I learnt that each of them had at least one member of staff devoted exclusively to immigration matters. Additionally, members of Congress and their staff have a separate line to the INS, one where people answered! My in person visit with one of the staff members was particularly well timed since her office happened to be working on another British immigration case, apparently a member of a very high profile British rock band was having trouble getting the visa he needed to enter the United States for his upcoming tour. The staffer was happy to put in a call about both of our cases together.
Something magical happened shortly after I came to the attention of my members of Congress (it took three letters to each, hand delivered the second and third times), which was that my application got processed and approved. I wonder whether multiple offices had asked the INS about the same case, and maybe the agents decided that instead of putting it back into the pile of to process, they ought to process it.
My greencard was a 4 year wait, punctuated by yearly applications, multiple fingerprintings, and ultimately enough frustration to trigger engaging the U.S. political and representative system to see whether I could get help.
I offer this as another point of reflection on whether we could do and want something better.