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February 12th, 2002

  In the Belly of the Beast


A lot of people want to know how my INS interview went on Thursday.

[The story so far.  Derb applied for U.S. citizenship last year. Yes, before 9/11, thanks very much. After filling out forms & getting fingerprinted, the next big step is the interview. You have to show a reasonable command of English and answer some questions about U.S. history and government. Now read on.]

Well, here is my report from the belly of the beast — in this case, the INS offices in Garden City, NY.

I'll admit I was apprehensive. Yes, I can speak English; and yes, I've tried to inform myself about U.S. history and government. Bureaucrats, though, have a separate Constitution all their own, and I haven't exactly been polite about the INS on this site. See this one, for example. If any vindictive INS officer wanted to get back at me, the interview would be a good time to do it.

Some years ago I accompanied a Chinese friend to his driver's test in New York City. We got stuck in a traffic jam on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and were 15 minutes late getting to the test center. The examiner was one of those fierce cubic black ladies that New York City specializes in, and she was furious. "You don't come late to a driver's test," she thundered. "Nobody comes late to a driver's test. You're not late when you have to take a plane, are you? Did you ever know anyone miss a plane?  Right! Well, this is more important than catching a plane. This is a D-R-I-V-E-R-'S  T-E-S-T ."

We apologized, we cringed, we grovelled. After a few minutes watching us eat dog poop, the cubic lady graciously allowed that my friend might take his test. She got in the car with him and off they went. My friend had actually been operating a car for months, and was a perfectly good driver. He stopped at the stop signs, he signalled clearly, and he finished up with the sweetest bit of parallel parking I've ever seen.

Now, when you take a New York State driver's test, at the end of it the examiner hands you a blue form with a long list of items on it. Alongside each item are two boxes: a "fail" box, and a "needs attention" box. If any of the "fail" boxes is ticked, you've failed the test. Well, at the end of my friend's test the lady handed him his blue form, turned on her heel (one of the very few times I've actually seen that done) and strode off.

She had ticked every single "fail" box.

In view of the things I've been saying about the INS, I half-expected some similar experience on Thursday. I wished I'd been a bit less cavalier with my past comments. I heard the voice of my dear old mother: "No thought for the morrow — that's you, our John! No thought for the morrow!" It's true, of course — who knows you like your mother knows you? I live in the present. Never regret the past, never worry about the future. This makes for a cheerily stress-free life, but it has its down side.

So I showed up at the INS office Thursday morning carrying a certain load of apprehension. Now, I don't want to break any hearts out there in reader-land, and I'm ready for accusations of having succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome. I still have issues with U.S. immigration policy, both particular and general. However, in all honesty I have to report a pleasant, polite and efficient INS experience. There was hardly any waiting — less than at the average doctor's office. I went in at 10:00 am and came out at 1:30 pm, but half of that was optional. Once you've passed the test (yes! I passed!) you can sit and wait for your appointment letter — for the oath ceremony, that is — to be printed, or you can have them send it in the mail. I chose to sit and wait. Both the INS and the USPS do their best, I am sure; but both have a certain screw-up rate; and by a well-known principle in the Theory of Probability, the rate is compounded if you string them together.

[Though just one remark here about the sitting and waiting. In a room of 80 or 90 people, all of whom have had enough interactions with the INS to know that there is waiting to be sat through at every stage in the progress of their applications, there was me reading a book (some Robert Cohen short stories I'm reviewing for a newspaper whose name is an anagram of "Wogs in hot pants,") half a dozen others reading through crib sheets for the interview, or the Barron's prep book, and nobody else reading anything at all. Most of the people in that room spent the entire waiting period staring into space. I suppose they were thinking about something: but as a bookworm, I want to know what, if you don't read at every opportunity, do you have to think about? And: If the current U.S. immigrant pool consists almost entirely of people to whom, faced with an hour or so of waiting, the thought of bringing a book to read does not occur, have I made a serious life error opting for a career as a writer?]

My interview, after a one-hour wait — no worse, as I said, than many a private-sector experience — was conducted by a courteous and chatty lady (Hi, Roberta!) with a pleasant domesticated office: pictures of kids, framed certificates of competence, cool screen-saver. She sat me down and we exchanged some small pleasantries. I swore to tell the truth. I signed a couple of things. I answered a string of yes-no questions about my health, criminal proclivities, membership of the Communist and Nazi parties, etc.

Then came the test. It was tougher than I'd thought, but I'd been hitting the books. By the time I showed up at Garden City, I knew the U.S. Constitution as well as I know Britney Spears's belly-button. So I aced the test questions — even the one asking me to name the original 13 colonies. (Here's how I remember them: 4 New England, 3 local, 3 tidewater, 3 South.) We had an interesting discussion about the question that asked:  "What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?"  I gave the rote answer, which is the right thing to do in these circumstances — they're not looking for scholarship:  "Freed many slaves."  My inquisitress nodded and ticked me correct, then observed that it really hadn't done a darn thing, since the Civil War was still under way, and if the Union had lost, no-one would have been freed. I pointed out that there were slave states fighting with the North … and a very interesting discussion followed. (In which it emerged that the INS lady was much better informed about U.S. history than I am.)

After 15 minutes or so it was all over. The lady told me I'd passed, congratulated me, and showed me to the waiting room for my appointment letter. April 19th, at the Javits Center. That's when I become an American. Oh, boy. And, er, … thank you, INS.

Non-erratum.   In my Enron piece I said:  "I'd also like to see suggestions for enforcing the Mr. Wu principle: that if your business fails, you end up personally broke."  Several readers emailed in to explain the principle of limited liability to me, with much patience and only a little sarcasm. Well, duh. But the purpose of that principle is to spare failed businessmen and their estates from being hounded to the grave by creditors claiming un-limited liability. It is not to enable failed businessmen to walk away from their screw-ups with two yachts, three private planes, four condos in Aspen and a 5-mile stretch of Galveston coastline. Yay for limited liability: but when a business has failed so comprehensively it has temporarily beggared hundreds of people and blotched the fair face of entrepreneurial capitalism with a large stain, thus supplying free ammunition to the many, many enemies of liberty here and abroad, it's unseemly for the officers to escape with anything more than a decent middle-class lifestyle. Who disagrees with this? Why?

And, as a kind and wise reader has said for me:  "In fact, the vast majority of businesses in the U.S. are small sole proprietorships and 'subchapter S' corporations in which the primary owners hold the company, and the stock in the company is basically worthless to anyone but the proprietors. These companies are almost always fully at risk of financial failure, and fail with great regularity. The reason you don't hear much whining from the owners is the 'Mr. Wu' syndrome. I have seen it many, many times. In the end, most of the wealthy people I know live with this risk every day, and benefit from the personal responsibility which certainly sharpens their attention to the matter."  Thank you, Sir.