Seeing Red About Getting a Green Card

Alvin Mares is a doctoral student at UCLA

When I got married two years ago, I had no idea of the frustrations involved in applying for a green card with the Los Angeles office of the INS. I am a U.S. citizen; my wife is Chinese. We submitted her application for resident alien on Aug. 29, 1995. The application was approved on Dec. 10, 1997. It took more than two years and eight visits to the INS to receive her temporary green card.

Three aspects of the application process are particularly frustrating: difficulty checking on the status of your case, inconsistent information given by INS officers and special treatment of lawyers.

The only practical way to check on the status of your case is to visit the INS office. All inquiries are served on a first-come basis. Only 50 to 100 inquiries are accepted each day. If you do not arrive before 5 a.m., you most likely will be asked to come back another day. During my last visit to the INS, I arrived at 3:30 a.m. and found 12 people ahead of me in line. If you are fortunate enough to be among the first 50 or 100 people in line, you get to sit and wait for six to eight hours (on average) before speaking with an INS officer. A couple of months ago I waited until 3:30 p.m., only to be told that my case file could not be located and to come back another day.


A second source of frustration is inconsistent information given by INS officers about the status of your case. I spoke with one officer who told me that some financial documentation was needed. Two weeks later, my wife spoke with the same officer who told her that we were missing fingerprints. When we visited the week after that, a different INS officer said that our file was complete and gave my wife her temporary green card. The content of our file had never changed.

The special treatment afforded to lawyers is sickening. During my last visit, I saw a lawyer enter the waiting room, ask to speak with a particular INS officer, and have three applications processed (presumably for temporary green cards) all within 10 minutes. Each time I visited the INS I saw lawyers cutting in or bypassing the line completely. No one protests for fear of offending the INS agents who carry the coveted temporary green card stamp. The lawyers who do wait in line often solicit new business from the captive pool of frustrated individuals a mere three feet from a sign prohibiting solicitation.

The only way that the INS can continue to operate like this is that immigrants believe they do not have a choice.

Applying for a green card does not have to be so frustrating. Modest changes at the local level could greatly improve service delivery and quality.

First, an appointment process could be established which would allow individuals to inquire about the status of their case without having to arrive at 5 a.m. and wait hours.

Next, a standard form could be developed to document exactly what additional information is required, which INS officer reviewed the file and the file review date. This would minimize the risk of inconsistent or incomplete information from INS officers.


Finally, immigrant rights advocates should police the special treatment of lawyers and illegal solicitation of clients by lawyers on the INS premises. If a lawyer enters the waiting room and attempts to cut in line or bypass the line altogether or if a lawyer is distributing business cards, an immigrant advocate volunteer or staff person could bring this to the attention of the supervisor on duty.

Yes, the Los Angeles INS office has been overwhelmed by the volume of green card applications due to welfare reform and stricter enforcement of immigration policies. But minor modifications in the case inquiry process and the policing of special treatment of lawyers would significantly reduce the unnecessary frustration experienced by those people applying for green cards.