The Waiting Game

The parking lot in front of the Bloomington Citizenship and Immigration Service is already jammed full at 5:45 a.m. Exhaust billows up from the tailpipes of idling cars as people sit inside them waiting, gazing through defrosting windshields. With another 45 minutes to go before the office opens, every pair of eyes is focused on the stucco building's metal front doors.

Immigrants from nearly every part of the world gather here each morning. They come to apply for citizenship, work cards, even to be granted asylum. The regulars know the drill well. They understand that the office can handle only around 300 cases per day, that it could be hours before their numbers are called, that you show up early or don't bother showing up at all.

Debasis Dash, a sharply dressed man in his 20s, was one of the first to arrive today. "I came this morning at 1:00 a.m. and have been here since," he says in a whisper that belies exhaustion. Originally from India, Dash has lived in the United States for the past three years. A graduate of the University of St. Thomas in software engineering, he now wishes to stay in the U.S. and land a job in his field. Before he can do that, however, he needs an employment authorization card. Debasis says he is only allowed to seek employment in his field. "I can't just go to work as a manager at McDonald's or something, not that I want to," he says. "I can only find a job in the field I am trained in."

Finally, at 6:30, the office doors open. A husky security guard greets the hundred or so people filing in and asks each to briefly state his or her business. He stands with his legs together and shoulders back while slowly perusing the room, conveying routine authority. But when he comes across someone he knows--not an uncommon occurrence--he breaks into a smile and offers a warm hello. Then he points the way toward a set of metal detectors, beyond which lies an enormous, dimly lit basement room full of endless rows of plastic chairs. Everyone gets a number.

"Our first visit, we came in the afternoon and they kind of chuckled at us," says Mark, a soft-spoken Minnetonka resident waiting with his wife Fang. Fang is originally from Shanghai and is pregnant with the couple's first child. The two sit quietly in the middle of the room, staring straight ahead as Mark holds his wife's hand. They showed up early today--at 6:00 a.m.--to discuss Fang's employment eligibility. "From what we have heard, we feel better about today," says Mark. But he looks a little nervous and none too convinced.

The sense of tension among those waiting--and waiting--is palpable. Some read magazines or newspapers. But most fix their glossy eyes on the number screen hanging on the far wall. There is so much at stake that it's almost possible to discern the communal hum of concentration from the motorized buzz of the radiator vents. And each time a number is called, someone leaps from a chair as if a firecracker has just exploded under it.

When Debasis's turn comes, he jumps up, mid-conversation. A few minutes later he returns, employment card in hand. He sits down and checks it meticulously, lest he be forced to return. He examines the name, the numbers. "I just want to make sure everything is right," he says aloud, to nobody in particular. Then he slips the card into his wallet and walks out the door.

The next number is called and the day's routine continues.

 
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