I am not sure why I have never posted this article before. Perhaps it is because I do not altogether trust any government department to deal with me honestly. I am not a citizen. Merely a ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ or P.R.A.. Sounds kind of spooky. But it is a privilege I have honored over the years since I qualified for this status in 1975. I don’t break the obvious laws, I pay my taxes and generally act more responsibly than more than half the population. But as a P.R.A. I believe myself to be even more vulnerable to the whim of some Government bureaucrat than a citizen. Not that citizens are immune. There are U.S. citizens who have been imprisoned, even ‘rendered’, by our security forces for reasons not disclosed to the public.

And so with the renewal of my what is colloquially known as a Green Card, coming up this Friday with a visit to the local offices of the Orwellian titled Department of Homeland Security, I feel my paranoia coming on quite strongly. Until the idiocies of the Bush administration my fear of Government was fairly low key. I hate forms and filling in forms is what immigration folks love you to do. But now there is a whole new machinery of distrust looking for ways to justify its sad life.

I wrote this article in the nineties after a visit to the then Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in Portland to either renew my Green Card or change my address. I actually think the way immigrants are handled may have improved. But my paranoia remains because its not the process so much as the result that counts.

Here is the article. Contact me next week and ask me what happened this Friday.

The Delicatessen of Status

by Bob Sterry

In George Orwell’s book, “1984” the hero, Winston Smith, finally has to face his greatest fear in Room 101. Not death, and not pain of the ordinary sort is dispensed in Room 101. In this room state enemies come face to face with the thing against which, no matter what they do or think there is no defense. It is the worst thing in the world. It reduces them to survival mechanics. In Winstons’ case, he is brought face to face with rats, literally. They are tied in a cage against his face, separated from his succulent eyes by a fragile mesh. The two rats in the cage can see and smell the live human smorgasbord through the screen. Winston can also see and smell the ravenous rodents centimeters away as they gnaw frantically at the material between them. He does what only he can. He requests of his inquisitors, between screams, that they do this terrible thing to someone else, to Julia, someone he loved. In doing this, Winston destroys that love. It was just the final piece of his degradation so necessary for state security in a world where love is not tolerated.

            In the movie of the book, made in or around 1984, Richard Burton plays the inquisitor O’Brien to Jonathon Hurt’s Winston Smith. Filmed, as it seemed to me, through a gray-blue filter, it successfully represented Winstons’ mind as he travels form state cipher to revolutionary to reprocessed shell. By watching the movie alone, at night, I destroyed my capacity for sleep.

            I was recalling all this horror the other day as I waited in Room 407 at the Federal Building. If you were born a US Citizen and avoided marrying a foreigner, you will probably never have to visit Room 407. Making a demographic mental subtraction you can fairly easily calculate who gets invited to Room 407. We are a select group. We are, depending on who you listen to, either the scum of the earth battering at the weakened walls of democracy looking for a free lunch and clean needles, or the new lifeblood of the Republic, willing to put our sweat at the disposal of the state.

            My first experience of Room 407 was in Newark NJ in 1974 when, as a naïve and inexpert liar, I tried to convince a very smooth and canny immigration officer that my recent and seemingly lengthy presence in the United States was only fulfilling my fervently held desire to write a book about the history of New Jersey, and had absolutely nothing to do with attempting to find illegal employment which would invalidate my visitors visa. I had waited two and a half hours with the patient citizens of a dozen Caribbean nations for the privilege of presenting my pathetic untruth; this after a one hour bus ride from Manhattan and a nervous walk down Broad Street, in the nervous center of Newark.

            It is either a remarkable monument to democracy or to lousy and mendacious planning, or both, that no matter what purpose I and my fellow attendees had in Room 407 we all had to be processed in exactly the same fashion. We waited in a line that snaked in and out of rooms and out of the building into the frigid street. From time to time INS or security guards would address the mass in heavily accented English of which neither my Hispanic neighbors nor I understood one wit. Since I was the only ‘gringo’ in the line I was often the target of the monosyllabic enquiry, “Abocado”. They were not offering me a bite of a refreshing food but asking was I perhaps an immigration lawyer, who could somehow speed their way through the maze of tripwire questions and perplexing forms that we all knew waited for us in Room 407. My reaction was to remark silently to myself, that if I was such a being would I be here waiting with you in the cold for the gringo immigraciones to favor us with a few choice words?

            Upon entering Room 407, everyone takes a number from the red plastic dispenser by the door. No-one jokes audibly here about getting a couple of pounds of ham or salami. Over the counter behind which the uniformed INS officers stand is an electric display “now serving #……”. We have all quickly calculated how long remains for us to wait, and now can join other lines for the bathrooms or rush out and buy the truly appalling coffee and sandwiches sold by local vendors preying on such lines.

            Once inside Room 407 tension and discomfort is caused not by whether you will finally get to present your case, but by the diffusion of all the other anxieties that are circulating the room into your own. They are like flies looking for a juicy spot to settle and feed. Sensing your obvious and desperate concern that your brand new photograph, still not quite dry, is not going to be the correct size for the application you are trying to make, it makes its landing and begins to whisper your fears over and over, ‘look at her photo…it’s bigger than yours…why did you not get two sizes?…his is in color….and it has a white border…..they have four….why do you only have two? You will be sent back!”  I have a feeling that this sense of disquiet, bordering on outright fear, is not exactly unwelcome to the INS. I amuse myself with the suspicion that a having a fearful and un-composed applicant for asylum is better for their interrogative purposes than having to face one fresh from a briefing at the barrio community office.

            Everyone in this room is anxious. What happens in this room will affect the course of our lives permanently. In some cases, what happens in this room can be the virtual serving of a death warrant. When a political refugee finds that his application for asylum extension has been denied, his or her life may very well be at stake. When we leave this room, we will have been changed. Our life subtly or grossly altered by the change, or not, of our immigration status. We can now go to work as a migrant farm laborer, or we have to return to the very place we fought to leave; we can now go on to bring Father to his family, or we have to leave him rotting in a stinking refugee camp not too far from Galilee. The rights and wrongs of all these separate lives and their aspirations are hidden, as are the emotions of the INS officers. But the tension, the anticipation and anguish of our joint conditions percolates through us all. We resonate with uncertainty. Thieves and angels at the same frequency.

            We do not speak to others very much as we wait, lest we reveal our terrible ignorance of the process and then have to admit that we should not even be here or worse, that we fear we do not have the right forms, photographs, photocopies, affidavits, certificates, transcripts, licenses, form of payment; we have forgotten our Mother’s maiden name, the name of the picturesque slum where we were born, our age and even why we are here. No, it is best to sit and stew on the hard plastic chair whilst the red numbers in the display flip oh so slowly over, and you try to decide if there is sufficient time to go to the bathroom just one more time. There is little mercy for those who are out of the room when their number is called.

            As you number draws closer you experience a curious mixture of horror and excitement. Your number flips up, you leap up, your heart pounding as you stumble and half run to the counter where the officer waits, exuding an intimidating boredom. The questions begin in a dry monotone. Looking past the officer you can see all the stamps lying on the desk that can save your life or destroy it. Little wooden stamps that carry terrifying power.

            Everyone in here is a unique case. We all believe that there is no one else whose situation could be anything like ours. We are right. We range from political refugee to migrant worker to visiting student to tourists accidentally overstaying their visas due to food poisoning or a hijacking on board their Alaskan cruise ship. None of us are rich, we are from every place on the globe you can name. We are either welcome or not. We will be told at length. We clutch our numbers and wait to be called to the counter. We are all waiting in the Delicatessen of Status.

© Robert M. Sterry

October 1996.