My client, an immigrant from China, had been summoned to an interview with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Prudence dictated hiring a certified translator to attend the appointment with us.
My client was only 30 – 40% fluent in English. I know 0% Chinese.
USCIS brought their own translator. After a long discussion, during which the interviewing officer consulted with his supervisors, the government acknowledged there were no regulations preventing two translators at the interview.
I asserted, from the outset, that I would only consult with our translator to ensure a full understanding of questions asked and accurate answers by my client.
In other words, our translator was a back-up translator. The USCIS translator would be the primary and official translator for the interview.
It was a long drawn-out affair.
Midway through the meeting, the USCIS interpreter made a startling confession. She told the government agent that our translator was more fluent in both Chinese and English. She suggested switching roles. She recommended our translator serve as the primary translator and she would be the back-up translator, whose role would be to ensure there were no misunderstandings on USCIS’ part.
The officer became visibly upset. He verbally turned his anger towards my client and insulted him for bringing in a separate translator. I asked him to calm down.
The request fueled his anger even more.
I informed him that, as my client’s green card lawyer, I would unilaterally terminate the interview if he did not change his attitude, tone, and behavior.
He got up from his chair and left the room. He did not say where he was going or when he would return.
About 10 minutes later, he returned with a supervisor. When the supervisor learned that USCIS’ own translator had made the recommendation, he seemed puzzled. He asked if we would agree with keeping the same primary translator. I told him the issue was never an issue. We had not even talked about switching the roles.
The switch of roles had been a mere recommendation followed by an unprofessional outburst.
The heavy workload and accompanying stress imposed on government employees at various immigration agency offices is no excuse for such behavior. Plain and simple, the USCIS agent’s actions were wrong.
Later that day, the incident reminded me of an article I wrote several years ago about a culture of rudeness displayed by far too many government employees toward immigrants.
I wrote it shortly after Obama had taken office. Hopes were high he would reform not only immigration rules, but also government bureaucracy.
The article, “Dear President Obama: A Simple Suggestion To Reform Immigration Bureaucracy,” is reprinted below with minor modifications.
Sadly, the article is as relevant today as it was back then.
During his campaign for the White House, President Obama indicated he wants to implement changes to government bureaucracy.
I suggest starting with improved customer relations training for immigration office employees.
A Day In The Life Of A Green Card Applicant
After waiting 2 1/2 hours, my client was finally called for her green card interview.
We headed to the hallway door to meet the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. I extended my right hand to greet the officer and introduce myself.
He turned and walked away. With his back to us, he said, “Follow me.”
My client’s face turned colorless. Fear ran up and down her spine. I whispered, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.”
I again extended my right hand as we entered the officer’s room. He looked at me and said,”We do not shake hands with immigrants seeking benefits.”
“Really,” I asked, “is that a written policy?”
He ignored the question.
Maybe I’m too old-fashioned. As I was growing up, my mother taught me to always shake hands.
The Absence Of Professionalism
The attitude displayed by the USCIS officer is not an isolated incident. In my experience, too many immigration offices are infected with a culture of rudeness. Not all, but too many.
- Filing window clerks who fling papers at clients and attorneys rather than respond to simple inquiries about procedures or forms
- Security guards who treat visitors as if they are enemy terrorist suspects
- Detention officers who place callers on hold for 20 minutes before asking the callers about their names or reasons for calling
- Immigration judges who act like having tantrums on the bench is a form of judicial discretion
Government lawyers are not exempt from this epidemic.
Having been an immigration trial attorney in Riverside for over 16 years, as I’ve walked into immigration court, I offer to shake hands with opposing counsel. Most return my gesture. Yet, some appear shocked. They stare incredulously at me . . . as if I am doing something foreign to legal etiquette.
And unfortunately, this handshake is sometimes the end of civility. More often than I care to remember, I’ve needed to remind opposing counsel it is not necessary to personalize our legal dispute or vilify my immigration client.
A Plea For Professional Civility
Like the President, I played a lot of basketball as a young man.
I remember many intense games at a church playground with a dangling chain-link basket. We would try our hardest to beat each other.
Afterwards, we would head to a small neighborhood grocery store. We would put our money together to buy and share twinkies and chocolate milk. Despite the furious competition just minutes earlier, there was rarely lingering animosity.
I learned an invaluable lesson from those basketball games — a lesson it appears our president has also learned.
Mere opposition does not justify belligerence.
This lesson guides my interaction with those on the other side when I represent clients.
Those who work at immigration agencies need to learn the same lesson.
Even though my clients are immigrants from foreign countries, the rude, and often mean-spirited, attitude displayed at many immigration offices is inappropriate. Government employees are public servants, and role models for the public they serve.
I am not alone in my position. As the Institute for Civility in Government notes, if government will not model civic responsibility, how can we expect others in society to be any different?
Unfinished Business: Immigration Bureaucracy Reform
Contrary to rumor, old dogs can learn new tricks.
Comprehensive immigration reform is not likely to happen in the near future. Nonetheless, it’s not too late for Obama to reform the culture of rudeness on display at many immigration bureaucracies.
In fact, better late than never.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics