A visit to USCIS, and an unexpected surprise
Yesterday I went into the Brooklyn Field Office of USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) in order to get some paperwork done in my application process for naturalization.* On my bike ride into this office (located in Manhattan, I was mildly annoyed to learn), I thought about how there was a time when I'd be having a rapidly escalating stomach attack right about now that would have had me becoming an emergency patron at a local establishment along the way somewhere. Going all the way back, there was a time when I was a child where, instead of biking while wearing a sweatshirt, stretch pants, and a beanie, I'd be going in to any immigration-related federal agency appointment with my family wearing my nicest dress and my hair neatly made.**
I park my bike across the street ("no parking on federal grounds," a security officer tells me), go through security check, then arrive at the right office on the third floor. It's surprisingly quiet and slow, even for a 1pm appointment on a Wednesday afternoon. I fumble with all my documents, coat, beanie, bag, and phone while going back and forth between the appropriate service windows. I am nervous, and due to a combination of avoidance tendencies when handling scary things and a misleading and extremely annoying process for accessing my appointment letter on the USCIS website, I have to go back to the same service window a couple of times with all the right documents needed (thankfully electronic versions are fine).*** Given the pandemic, the building is restricting access to only the patrons, and allowing no one else for accompaniment.
After finally getting all the right documents together, Officer G finally begins the process to approve and grant me the InfoPass stamp. This is where, I think, something unexpected and... kind of magical happens. We connect as human beings. It still feels jarring to me even now. She was a wonderful lady. But she was also, for all legal intents and purposes, at the time, USCIS: an agency of terror and overwhelming dominion that I despise. How can both, so undeniably true, be happening at the same time with this one person? Being multicultural, you know that it's quite possible and, in fact, very common that mutually exclusive truths should be coexisting all the time. Still, this is an occurrence at a level altogether different for me.
Officer G is a woman perhaps in her 50's. She is wearing gold hoop earrings and her relaxed hair looks tousled atop her head like a natural style. When I first approach her I am ingratiating myself as everyone else on this side of the windows, overly apologetic for being a pain in the ass. I try to get over my nervousness by trying to dissociate her from the officer that interviewed me for my green card and the sheer hate I'd read on the front page of the USCIS website a few months back, by thinking about the challenges that street-level bureaucrats face, by trying to notice the person in front of me.**** We talk, empathizing with the fear that everyone in my spot approaches her, which might be the reason they (we) don't bring receipts as they (we) should. She shares about how people approach her window at times literally shaking, thinking that she might hurt them (in a legal process kind of way). She's incredulous of this fear ("I'm not gonna bite you! I'm just a normal person."), and I try to explain as much as I can what it's like. "Your reputation precedes you.." "Huge narrative around ICE..." "navigating bureaucracy in a new country..." " It's like, we're both women, right? When a woman might have experienced violence against men and doesn't want anything to do with men..." I realize that she has kind brown eyes.
I get my stamp on my green Korean passport. After continued profuse thanks and good wishes, I leave her window and the building. What a whirlwind experience.
Afterwards, I stop by Chinatown. It is wonderful to be among other Asians in these times again. And Alimama's signature milk tea might trump the Kung Fu Tea milk tea as my new favorite milk tea.
After a long journey, I am now less than a year away from becoming a naturalized citizen, I am still terrified of all that pertains to USCIS and immigration. Their notice mails terrify me. When it comes to handling anything related to my naturalization process, my generally high level of education turns to mush, and I am unable to function. I cave into this fear. I relegate such matters to my husband.
I write this reflection in tremendous gratitude to legal aid nonprofits and lawyers, for helping immigrants navigate a system that they cannot, whether due to the lack of educational privilege or emotional capacity. Officer G herself was concernedly recounting instances where a patron would reveal that they are being scammed by lawyers. I have always been so admiring of immigration lawyers for the critical role they play for communities as trusted and accessible advisors and advocates, so much so that I had seriously considered attending law school myself. Now that I am fully immersed in the activity of self-expression, however, I feel giddy at the thought that I did not choose that route. I'm afraid that my mind's capacity wasn't wired the way of legal professional pursuit enough.
My particular thanks go to the following community immigration lawyers and organizations by whom I have had the deep pleasure of having been served. Just in the last month, Michael Oh at MinKwon Center in New York helped me determine my need for an InfoPass, after recounting concerns in delays. Likewise, recently, Jenny Seon at Ah-Ri Center in Los Angeles helped my father with some matters recently with an incredible level of cultural competence and loving care (behold, a lawyer that will spare fifty minutes for a community member, for legal and nonlegal concerns alike. This is not to say that others wouldn't, or that any of them should, but I think this is a level of kindness displaying humility and dedication in ways uncommon). Finally, I will always be committed heart and soul to the radical model of Beyond Legal Aid to bring lawyers to communities in ways like no other organization in the country (and, probably, the world). Having served on its board for now six years, I can say that this organization is thoroughly sheer goodness in so many ways. I am likely not the only admirer of executive director Lam Nguyen Ho for his brilliance and unending care for communities in most systemic need, but, for what it's worth, I am certainly among the very top.
*I needed to get an InfoPass stamp to essentially extend my expired conditional green card for another year, due to delays in paperwork.
**How strangely reminiscent the transformation of my regard for this office is to my immigrant assimilation experience. When you are in a new country with no legal status, your process of becoming starts with the most readily apparent: your manner of seeming and sounding a certain way. You put on your best outward performance in order to make the right impression, and, perhaps at times, in hopes to fake it 'til you make it. After you do this often and long enough, there starts to grow a discord within you. The organs aren't in sync with one another, as they should. There are mixed signals. Stomachaches, nightmares, splitting of the self, dysphoria. This continues until you are relieved from the need to continue.
***I only dare share this here because I have a feeling that an American might sympathize. To a Korean immigrant's perspective though, I feel, this is irresponsible and unacceptable, and I am feeling plenty like an idiot.
****The interviewing man from back in last spring, a white man perhaps in his 40s, was stern. One could say that his cold and impersonal demeanor simply meant that he was trying to do his job well... but engaging with him with my relatively broad cultural and linguistic understanding, his coldness made my heart ache for other immigrants.
In Streel-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, Michael Lipsky recounts the varied challenges that public service workers face in the process of their work, overwhelming structural forces that disempower them to better perform and ultimately translate to what can be an inconsistent, inadequate, and unjust way that the public receive services.