Did you know that the fist thing you see as you enter the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) application office (just off Billy Graham Parkway in Charlotte) is the word "No". I haven't been to any other USCIS application services offices around the country, but that big "No" is what you see at the door of our local office. It stares at you from a large black-and-white sign telling all visitors, what they are not allowed to bring to the office: cameras, cell phones, food and drink and a few other things. Interestingly, weapons are at the bottom of the list - apparently cameras, cell phones, food and drink are considered more threatening to the USCIS operations than guns and knives.
Don't get me wrong, Charlotte applications office operations have improved dramatically in the last 5-10 years. The last time I had to give my fingerprints to USCIS (it was INS then) I had to wait an hour and a half beyond my designated time slot - this time I only had to wait 30 minutes, because there were five people servicing five fingerprinting machines, instead of two people trying to service five machines, and one of the two agents was on a permanent lunch break. I am not sure, why I had to give my prints the second time, but bless USCIS for cutting the time down by two thirds.
You can now come in on a Saturday, which is awesome because so many people have Saturday off. Sure, when you get a notice to come give your prints or go through your interview, they set the date and time for you (regardless of whether you might be having a heart transplant that day or be out of town on a trip you've been planning for the last year), the only re-scheduling options are the nearest Wednesday or Saturday, and the notice frequently arrives too late to reschedule anyway. However, at least there are options.
The prints are now taken electronically, which means you don't walk around for a week with your fingertips covered in what seems to be permanent ink, and with people staring at you as if you just got out of jail.
And yet... "No"... No, you may not bring food or drink into the office, even if you have to bring your small children with you (because, of course, it's essential to get their fingerprints and run an FBI background check on your three- and five-year old), even if you are diabetic and even if you do end up spending two to seven hours there (yes, that's seven hours - I've spent that much time at an immigration office before to get one stamp in my passport). This begs a question: can a small infant (who, of course, is a hardened criminal at the age of one and must be fingerprinted) bring his mother, if she is still breast-feeding him? Would that be cheating?
No, you may not bring your cell phone or pager with you. Not even if your father is in an ICU after a heart surgery, not even if your wife is in labor, not even if you are an ER nurse, not even if you promise to put it on vibrate. A bomb might be set off via a cell phone. This was an explanation given to me by a USCIS agent when I asked about the cell phone restriction. Yes, I suppose it is possible, however, it doesn't make any sense for anyone to blow up an immigration office - on the contrary, us - dang foreigners - would rather have as many of them functioning as smoothly as possible so that we could invate this country faster. But you still can't bring a cell phone.
No, you may not bring a camera, because the fingerprinting machines are actually top secret surveillance devices, and god forbid, photos of them fall into the wrong hands. So, if your wife does end up giving birth at that office, because you couldn't reschedule the appointment and you couldn't call an ambulance because you couldn't bring a phone (and you wouldn't want to leave anyway, because who knows when another time slot will become available), you won't be able to take a picture of your new baby either. How likely is this particular scenario? Not very - but so is the danger presented by someone who happens to have a camera in their bag (shockingly enough, some foreigners actually do work as photographers and carry cameras with them - amazing, isn't it?).
No, we are not going to set up a small area outside of the office, where you can have a snack or make a phone call. We will not put a speaker out there, so that you would hear your number called, because then you might actually relax and calm down while going through your application process, and we want you on your toes.
Actually this last part is pure speculation. I have no idea, why it's so impossible to set up an area outside the USCIS application services office, where people could eat, drink, use their cell phones, feed their kids, and let the little ones stretch their legs. Perhaps no one had thought of it. Perhaps someone had thought of it, but decided it wasn't worth mentioning, because this is an immigration office we are talking about here - a job where (along with the IRS guys) you are overworked, underpaid and everyone is either scared of you just plain hates you. So what reason have you to make it better for anyone else? I know us - immigrants - are reluctant to make suggestions, because while we are in the process of getting our status updated, we are too scared to step out of line even by a pinky toe; and when the process is over, we are so happy that we don't care anymore. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...
The only thing I know for certain is that the first thing you see as you enter the immigration office is the word "No".