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The Immigration & Naturalization Green Card Interview

Updated on June 2, 2016

The first thing I noticed about the Immigration & Naturalization Service’s Permanent Residency Interview Center in Washington, DC was the people out front. The stood in clusters, by nationality, nervously chatting in their native tongues; smoking a last butt before going in to find out if their long and frustrating wait was over.

My Japanese wife and I don’t smoke, and opted instead for a quick entry through security. We stepped into a glacially slow-moving elevator and waited while it took us up to yet another waiting room in our three-year saga to obtain a Green Card from this misanthropic organization. Like the multitudes of hopeful souls who live in the margin, we too were here to discover if we could finally breathe easy and move forward with our lives.

The doors opened and to my horror the sign read “Deportation Hearing Room.” We were on the wrong floor and I quickly hit the correct button. Again the doors opened and we walked cautiously into the waiting room. It was small and packed to the gills with people, and the sign above the two-way mirror instructed us to put our appointment sheet into the mail slot. Around us were the survivors: the people who had endured years of intrusive questions, long lines, and repetitive forms to emerge at this place, one-step away from having Temporary removed from their lives in the U.S. I looked around at these strangers and felt a moment of kinship.

Everyone sat erect, staring at the door by the mirror, no doubt wondering what their interview was going to be like. Well-dressed attorneys flipped through thick files and whispered reassuring words to their catatonic clients. The whole thing had the incipient feel of a criminal court, though the only offense most of us had committed was marrying a non-citizen.

By now most everything in these offices was familiar to me, but today a new sign shone down from the wall: If you feel you’ve been mistreated you may notify the Office Manager. I chortled, knowing that surely no one complains, despite the INS’s deplorable record of customer service. Being treated badly is the price we’re all gladly willing to pay for a positive outcome.

No one here today wants to make this government agency better anymore; they only wish to survive it, to outdistance it, and to close this redoubtable chapter of their lives. At this point of the process, my skin had grown so thick and so impervious to the acrimony here that they could slap our faces twice, hand us the Green Card, and I would thank them, dancing a jig as I departed the building.

The door is thrown open and an African family emerges. They are smiling and caterwauling amongst themselves; obviously things went well, and their success heartens us. But moments later an Interviewer informs a diffident man that he missed his appointment and that he’ll have to go back on the waiting list for another. At this he becomes distraught and sulks out of the room, railing at his bad luck in some Middle Eastern language.

Interviewers continually open the door and call out names; hopeful people pop out of their seats like second-string football players and vanish into the inner sanctum. Our appointment is at 11:20 but we have learned from our marathon wait sessions that a time at the INS means a day at the INS, and we have both taken a vacation day from work. We are neither surprised nor upset when the clock passes 12:30. Locked bathrooms only add to the palpable tension and discomfort in the room.

But halleluiah, they call our name. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman introduces herself as our Interviewer and escorts us through the door and into her cramped office with a scratched wooden desk and a view of I Street. We are both sworn in, and our long-anticipated last dance with the INS begins. She flicks through the detritus of our endeavor: tax returns, birth certificates, wedding photos, and medical records. It took months to accumulate this stuff—FBI recruits should go through such scrutiny. But we have crossed our tees and dotted our eyes with a vengeance, having complied with all requests.

At last she speaks, “Everything seems to be in order here but tell me Robert, what is your wife’s birthday?” I answer correctly and she looks disappointed.

“Alright,” she continues. “What date did she come to the U.S?” Another correct answer garners a furrowed brow, and I realize what’s going on here: This woman’s job is to expose fraudulent marriages, or to at least trip up interviewees sufficiently as to cast an air of doubt on their applications. My stomach churns as the questioning accelerates:

“How did you meet?”

“Who came to your wedding?”

“Where did you honeymoon?”

“Where did your wife go to college?”

These I handle with nervous resolve, but she then pauses, and drops the hum-dinger that I thought would put my better half on an international flight with the parting gift: “What are the names of your wife’s parents?” I blanched, because I had gone directly from calling them Mr. and Mrs., to Mom and Dad (as is custom for a son-in-law in Japan). The air was suddenly squalid. My dry mouth opened, my pupils dilated and somehow—the correct answer spilled out.

Her face brightened. “Well, I think we’re in good shape here. We’ll prepare your wife’s permanent residency card and get that out to you within the month.”

Success! The ominous weight we had known for so long was now removed from our shoulders, and smiles radiated from our faces as we scurried through the waiting room. The people there briefly smiled back at us, but they quickly returned to their own preparations. Walking on air we passed the guards, passed the smokers, and returned to the sweltering heat of a place that we could now call home.

Robert Beringer is a freelance journalist living in Florida. His first book, Water Power! a collection of marine short stories, is available at For a free sample go to

© 2016 Robert Beringer


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