A Day in the Life: The Case of Mrs. Smith, Part II

Note: This is the story of my friend, 77-year old Mrs. Smith, who is trying to get her U.S. citizenship. She was born in Canada to American parents and has lived in the states since she was 15, but she never got around to getting her U.S. citizenship until now. Since the passage of Colorado HB06-1023, Mrs. Smith has not been able to renew her drivers license and she could lose her Medicare/Medicaid coverage at any time.

Mrs. Smith and her husband live in Grand Junction and the prospect of driving over mountain passes and in city traffic was overwhelming to them, so I offered to transport them to the offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Denver.

We left Thursday to make an 11:45 a.m. appointment on Friday. This is the continued story about her experiences to become a legal citizen. Read part one here.The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office is no longer in downtown Denver where we stayed Thursday night. It is located on 47th and Paris near  Commerce City. We had to maneuver through downtown city streets, underpasses and five miles of intense I-70 traffic to get to the Havana turnoff. Both Mr. and Mrs. Smith mentioned they would have been completely psyched-out if they had tried to drive.

“We would have never found our way or we would have been in an accident by now,” Mrs. Smith said, her hands clutched to the dashboard as we exited I-70.

The Immigration Services office is an embarrassment, in my opinion. It is part of a very old strip mall that has been half-assed converted into offices. You couldn’t park in the parking lot in front of the building because it was “private.” Hardly any cars were there. In the meantime, some immigration customers had to drive for blocks to find an on-street parking place. There were no handicapped parking places except in the private parking lot.

You accessed the main door through a very small entryway before you got to the security guards. Only two people at a time could fit, so the rest had to wait in line outside in the blustery weather. It was like going through airport security – men were asked to remove their watches and belts and women sometimes had to lift their platform shoes to prove there were no hidden bombs inside.

The guards were professional and somewhat intimidating; one had a Russian-KBG accent. I threw back my shoulders and stood tall – I was not going to be afraid of them. Then I handed the guards my Visa card for a pictured ID. They didn’t ask to see the bottom of my shoes.

The lobby/waiting area was grungy and depressing, and it seemed that no toilet tissue had ever graced the restrooms. A fake potted plant would have dressed up the large cold room like the Taj Mahal. There were about 25 to 30 people sitting, and many languages could be heard. Fox News was on the two TV’s (probably a mandate from Dick Cheney). Funny, we were in a federal office where people were dreaming of becoming  Americans and there were no flags or even a presidential photo on the wall.

Mrs. Smith was visibly shaken and hung onto her husband for support while she lined up at the first window. Here was my chance to visit the restroom. Before I got back, she had been escorted to a back office area unseen to those in the waiting room. Mr. Smith said an official had pointed to a chair in the lobby as if he had been forbidden to join his wife. He thought we better not inquire on her whereabouts.

For over an hour we did not know what was happening to Mrs. Smith in the secret back offices. Why was it taking so long? Mrs. Smith had been in a tizzy for several days about this event and I feared that she had finally fallen apart under interrogation.

Mr. Smith said he had to change his socks four times that morning until his wife was satisfied the color matched his outfit. She had even bought him a new suit coat for the occasion. I looked around the waiting room. Mrs. Smith had made her husband the best dressed one there.

I bet you would assume that most people seeking immigration services would be Hispanic. That was not the case. We sat among a diverse group: Asians, Middle Eastern, European, African….about every continent was represented in that waiting area. Faces said everything as people walked out the door of the mystery office area. There were no doubts who had just received their citizenship certificate and those who did not.

There was plenty of time to contemplate this naturalization process. Mrs. Smith had the support system of a husband, family, friends and a lawyer. She had family birth and death certificates going back to the 1880’s, old newspaper articles about her family, Historical Society documents and other papers. She was probably one in a million applicants who had this kind of detailed data.

Under this new immigration law in Colorado, what will happen to the sick, old or mentally handicapped Coloradans who do not have proof of their American birthplace? How will human service agencies be able to help them when it will take either legal or professional investigative assistance to find family documentation? If those items can’t be found, then what? Kick the elderly out of nursing homes? Shut off Food Stamps to the poor? How many legislators and Congressmen have asked themselves these questions before they have voted on immigration laws?

If you lost your birth certificate, how easy would it be to prove you are a citizen through your family history?

Finally, Mrs. Smith returned and as we waited for another official to talk to her, she related her experience:

“I asked for you two to join me, but the official said to wait and see if that was necessary,” she explained. “I was OK until he said what would happened today would determine whether I would ever get my citizenship. That really scared me and I started crying. But he didn’t give me a chance to get you from the lobby.”

The official was a nice young fellow, Mrs. Smith admitted, but like a used car salesman, he left her alone four times to talk to his supervisor in another room. “He was very nitpicking,” Mrs. Smith noted. “He was trying to prove my father or I had moved back to Canada in the late 1940’s. I had an old newspaper article that showed my father had worked for the U.S. Civil Service in WWII,” she said, “but the immigration official wanted more proof.” Luckily, she had a copy of the U.S. marriage license from her father’s second marriage in 1947.

An official in the doorway to the secret back rooms called Mrs. Smith’s name. This time, I was right by her side. The official handed a fancy certificate to her. “Here you go,” is all she said.

“Wait! Is this THE citizenship certificate?” I asked. The official nodded her head and weakly offered a “congratulations” and closed the door. Mrs. Smith took a brief look at it and immediately placed it in her briefcase. “This is going into a lock box,” she announced. From a glance, I noticed that it sure looked fancier and more official than the birth certificate I have.

It was sad that one of the most important and sought after documents in the world – a U.S. Citizen Certificate – was so nonchalantly handed out without some ceremony or acknowledgment.

Mrs. Smith relied on both of us to help her to the car. She was weak, stressed and exhausted. How have others coped during this process?

With a Friday snowstorm in the mountains, we decided to stay the weekend in the area. I dropped Mr. and Mrs. Smith off at their daughter’s near Longmont and I flopped at a friend’s house in Loveland. With the weather improved, we planned on a leisurely trip back to Grand Junction on Sunday.

But I got a call on Friday night. There was a problem with Mrs. Smith’s new U.S. Citizenship Certificate. No immigration official had signed it. It was “worthless” without that mark.

Thank God we had stayed in the Metro area because we will have to go back to the U.S. Immigration Service offices on Monday.

There wasn’t suppose to be a Part III, but there will be now, coming soon.

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