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The line starts at the door, stretches down the wheelchair ramp and around a corner, continues along the left side of the building and spills out into the parking lot. From there, it follows the back gate of the parking lot, then turns sharply to trail along the wooden fence that marks the end of the property. It is some several hundred people long.
The sun has not risen yet.
Near the front of the line, a skinny cylinder bag stands on one end. It looks like some sort of camping gear, maybe a fold-out chair. Someone came prepared. Waiting in line at the Immigration and Naturalization Service resembles camping overnight for concert tickets, only the faces here are weary with real fatigue, not fanatical devotion.
The INS district office in Houston, which serves 30 southeastern Texas counties, sits across I-45 from Greenspoint Mall. It opens at 7 a.m. But people begin lining up hours before that, as early as two in the morning.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Albert, about the 30th person in line, waits to renew his employment permit. Though the early-morning weather is chilly, he wears only a black T-shirt. He works in computers but still attends school. He arrived at 3:30 a.m., he says, in hopes of making a 9 a.m. class. "It's kind of harsh," he says. "They only let in a maximum number of people every day."
A sign taped on the inside of the building reads, "Effective Jan 1, 2001, No employment cards will be issued after 11 a.m." The office closes to the public at 3:30 p.m. On Friday, the doors shut at 11:30 a.m., so employees can be trained in the latest changes to immigration law.
By the side of the building, newlyweds Santos and Jennifer Aguilera brave the line together. She is a citizen; he is here to renew a work permit. They arrived at 5:30 a.m., Santos explains, because they never know how long they'll have to wait. Once, he says, he got there at 5 a.m. and did not reach the front door until noon. Santos has lived in the States for six years and applied for his green card two years ago. Without the card, he can't visit his grandmother in Mexico. He doesn't know why; the INS officer who informed him of the travel restriction never fully explained.
"He just said that's what the rules are, and I didn't want to start nothing," Santos says with a shrug.
Toward the end of the line, a man from central China named Johnny ("That's my English name") saves a spot for his friend. Driving 75 mph, he arrived at 6:30 a.m., 40 minutes after he left Chinatown at Bellaire Boulevard and Beltway 8. His friend has an appointment for a citizenship interview but doesn't know whether to stand in line or loiter outside the front door, so they decide to do both.
"Maybe there should be instructions outside to guide the customers," Johnny says.
But there is only a poster at the front that asks, "Why wait in line?" and offers a toll-free number. The poster says the number provides automated customer service as well as live help, but Johnny says he's never been able to speak with a real person.
There was a time when standing in line was the only option for people conducting business with the INS. But these days customers can download forms for free from the INS Web site and file through the mail. The INS has conducted surveys in various cities, including Houston, to find out why people stand in line.
"Fifty percent of the people standing in line truly and honestly do not have to," says INS spokesperson Mariela Melero-Chami. "And we don't understand it because there is no reason for them to come to INS unless they have an interview."
Families who do not own computers can use the Internet at the public library, she points out. The INS even spent $11,000 in September to install an information kiosk at the Fiesta supermarket at Bellaire and Hillcroft so that people could print forms and take mock citizenship tests, she says.
"It's right in the heart of our immigrant community, our Hispanic and Asian communities."
Still, the crowds come.
"It could be that we're not doing that good a job of letting them know where they need to go," Melero-Chami says. "It could be that people simply feel that this is way too important to trust the telephone or trust the mail. 'This is my citizenship or permanent residency; this is very serious.' They have the option, but they are choosing to come to INS."
On this recent morning, the line starts to move at 7 a.m. Kids clamber at the base of a small replica of the Statue of Liberty, her green face peeling in patches. Guards, dressed in gray slacks and navy coats, man the metal detectors and X-ray machine. One stands at the front door and directs the line's traffic, gesturing to people and answering questions.
Attorneys like Brendan Kelly can wave their bar cards and enter without waiting in line. On his many trips to the office, he has seen guards yell at people, which accomplishes little since many people waiting in line can't speak English yet.
"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."
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.