Border Line

In the predawn hours, immigrants face an eternity of waiting at the INS office

"I think the problem is a lot of the people here are ex-military," Kelly says of the guards. "You don't get a lot of customer service training in the military." He would know; he served in the army.

The guards are also strict about no cameras, no anything-that-could-be-used-as-a-weapon, including scissors and key-chain pocketknives, and no food and drink.

"I can understand why they don't want 2,000 people bringing burgers inside," Kelly says. "What bothers me is that if you're 22 or 30, you can deal with it. But if I'm five and I'm here because Mommy and Daddy have to do this, it gets to be a problem."

As Kelly waits his turn at the metal detector, a guard searches through the bags of a couple who are wheeling their child in a stroller. The X-ray machine image has detected bottled juice and crackers sealed in Ziploc bags.

"You have to throw it out or leave it in your vehicle," the guard says.

"But it's for the baby," the mother exclaims.

Only liquids in baby bottles with rubber nipples are allowed, the guard explains. The husband turns to his wife and asks if she wants to throw the food out.

"No!" she snaps, horrified that he would even consider it.

Inside the building, color-coded lines on the floor lead the way. The yellow line turns to the right for forms and tickets. The red line directs people to a desk for deportations and employment cards. The blue line is for naturalization and green cards. And the green line snakes to the left and ends at the cashier's window.

Customers must obtain one of two tickets, one for speaking to an officer or one for obtaining forms. A limited number of tickets is available each day, and people must wait hours for their number to be called.

During the summer, parents tote their kids with them and the waiting area is filled with bored, hungry children. Melero-Chami estimates that 500 to 700 people visit the INS office every day, and advises parents to leave their children at home. "Government offices are not designed for children."

Kelly, who has a four-year-old, asked the agency to show the Cartoon Network on its TVs, which it did for three months. But now the TVs are tuned back to CNN.

As Kelly takes a seat, a little girl with a big smile waves an American flag as she walks by. She was just adopted and sworn in as a citizen, he explains. But there is little joy in the rest of the room, among the waiting sea of dark-haired people.

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