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But in May 2000 the INS wrote back that Fernando had personally received an Order to Show Cause in 1992, and since the purpose of an OSC is to institute deportation proceedings against an individual, Fernando was "fully knowledgeable" of the proceedings, and his "blatant omission" during the interview rendered him inadmissible to the United States. Plus, the letter continued, the INS officer who interviewed him specifically asked if he had "ever been placed in deportation proceedings, excluding proceedings or removal proceedings."
His application was denied, the letter continued.
"There is no appeal to this decision."
In 1893 the INS employed a total of 180 employees; most of them were stationed at Ellis Island to inspect incoming immigrants. Today more than 30,000 employees work in 36 INS district offices in the United States and abroad. In addition to granting citizenship, the agency is responsible for maintaining 8,000 miles of international boundaries, adjudicating refugee and asylum issues, and overseeing intercountry adoptions, foreign students and tourist visas.
The Houston district office is one of the busiest, and its heavy workload has plagued it with problems, including one of the worst backlogs of green card applications in the nation.
Mariela Melero-Chami, a spokesperson for the INS Houston district office, says the agency knows it has flaws but is working to improve its services.
"Our director has made it his personal No. 1 priority to seek resources that we know a city like Houston is in need of in the area of immigration," she says.
New laws also have complicated the INS's job. In the last two decades, against a backdrop of anti-immigration sentiment, Congress has passed inflexible immigration policies that have made it difficult for legitimate immigrants to come to this country.
In 1996 Congress tightened immigration laws by passing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the definition of "aggravated felony" to include offenses such as shoplifting and writing hot checks. The law also allowed these crimes to be applied retroactively so that longtime legal residents could be deported for minor offenses committed decades ago.
While immigration attorneys know the INS must implement these laws, they also say that the district offices have some discretion. The attorney general of the United States has the power to adjust the status of any immigrant, if certain conditions are met, and district offices act in her stead.
And the Houston district office, they complain, can be unwieldy, bureaucratic and even downright rude.
"I see a lot of pettiness," said one attorney who asked not to be named. "They're suspicious of people and think everyone's trying to pull something over on them. In some cases, it's justified, but they don't give people the benefit of the doubt."
Nicole Morrison believes another office would have been more understanding of Fernando's situation. "The other districts, it's more a give and take," she says. "If you're not a criminal, they're not going to go after you tooth and nail. In Houston, it's a totally different story."
For Hyder and Betsy Hasan (also not their real names), the inflexibility of the system cost them their home. What was supposed to be a simple address change turned into a nightmare.
Hyder came to America for graduate school and fell in love with Betsy, an American citizen. They have three daughters, and Hyder supports the family, working in sales. "Employee of the Month" plaques crowd their living room walls. After their marriage in 1996, Hyder filed for a green card so that he could legally stay with his family. In 1998 the family bought a house in Houston and moved from Conroe. After Betsy stood in line at the INS to submit an address change, all seemed fine. The Hasans received mail -- including correspondence from the INS -- at their new home.
But inexplicably in January 2000 the INS sent a piece of mail to Hyder's Conroe address. The letter, an order to appear for a green card interview in February, was returned to the INS marked "Forwarding Order Expired." Hyder never saw it.
But the Hasans never received any indication that something was amiss with Hyder's case. In fact, the INS even granted Hyder permission to travel to Pakistan to visit family, and he returned in early March.
In June he went to check on his status. When he reached the front of the line, though, he was arrested. Because he had missed the February interview date, Hyder had been ordered deported.
"Bring your checkbook and get me a lawyer," he cried to Betsy over the phone.
Betsy was allowed to visit only one hour a week, and Hyder spent three weeks in jail until he appeared before a judge. He says guards tried to get him to sign blank sheets of paper, and once even left him in a cell all day without feeding him. He also met other detainees who had languished for months without ever appearing before a judge.
Eventually Hyder was granted a $1,500 bond, which his employer posted.
INS spokesperson Melero-Chami won't comment on specific cases but says it is not unusual for immigrants to be ordered deported when they miss appointments and that three weeks is a "reasonable amount of time" to spend in detention because it depends on the courts' calendars.