Wading through the government, one missing document at a time . . .

June 6, 2007 | By | 11 Replies More

OK, bear with me here. I’m still processing the adventure a friend and I had earlier this week as we attempted to elicit information, of the public record kind, from our country’s federal bureaucracy. I accompanied my friend on a quest for information about a long-deceased relative. Wow. After only a small glimpse into the inefficiencies of, well, everything, we could only wonder how our entire system has not yet imploded upon itself. First, some background:

This relative in question died in the mid-1930s, and my friend’s family knows that he never became naturalized as a citizen of the US. He was still a citizen of his native Italy as of the 1930 census, the only government document my friend has found thus far (found, by the way, via the genealogical website, http://www.ancestry.com). The relative died only a few short years later. My friend’s search this week is for proof of this lack of naturalization. In order to acquire some documents from Italy, he must show that a search has been conducted for naturalization papers and that they have never been found. Dates are sketchy, as the only living relative with information was just a child when this man died, so the family is working from approximations.

My friend, a very organized fellow, had all the paperwork he’d been able to gather thus far carefully compiled in a folder. He’d scoured the websites of the USCIS (that would be the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly known as the INS but renamed when it was absorbed by and reorganized under the flagship of Homeland Security), contacted the National Archives, and learned that he needed letters from three sources stating that the no naturalization papers were found. He needed a letter from the office of the federal court where the citizenship would have taken place, the National Archives where the record may have been moved, and the INS/now USCIS office. He took the day off, I had the day off, so we headed, folder in hand, downtown.

Up to this point, the process had been simultaneously tedious and fascinating. Neither of us had previously seen much in the way of genealogy work on our families, and he had learned a lot in his search for these records. I was fascinated – the 1930 census record he’d found was a copy of the actual hand-written document, done by the census-taker, up and down the street on which they lived. All the families’ names, ages, their relation to each other (sons, daughters, in-laws, boarders), whether they owned or rented, whether they were citizens (this was a largely immigrant neighborhood, which made the document even more interesting), their jobs and in what kind of business they worked – it was all there. Our person of interest was the proprietor of confectionary. He lived with his wife and children in a busy neighborhood in St. Louis city, now derelict, not yet part of the recent urban revitalization. Envisioning this history fascinated us both – we share a passion for historical treasure like this – and I’m sure my friend, who was glimpsing his direct past, was gaining a larger sense of the places and people from which he came.

He’d scoured Ellis Island records and had thus far found nothing on this man’s immigration to the States, possibly because records have been lost or names misspelled, but discouraging, nonetheless. He’d been able to find a marriage certificate and was still working on the birth certificate from the old country, as the birth year and exact location have yet to be unearthed. Still, since he’s probably filled in more gaps in his family history than anyone ever had, my friend is fast becoming the historian of his family’s proud Sicilian ancestry. He’s getting a charge out of doing it, and I’m honored he’s allowing me a front-row seat to the process.

So, Monday began with a trip into the Robert Young Federal Building in St. Louis, a large brick building housing the USCIS offices and, I’m sure, various other federal entities. He needed to find out where and how to request a search for the naturalization papers and thus be able to procure the letter stating that nothing was found. Upon entering the building, of course, we were funneled through airport-esque security. No surprises there; even before 9/11 federal buildings around the country upped their security significantly after the Oklahoma City bombing. I was familiar with the building because my daughters had both been adopted from overseas. I’d had to apply for permission to adopt internationally, a paperwork process done through an INS office; I saw it there, off to the right of the entrance.

After security, staffed by no less than five security guards, we looked for, but didn’t find, a directory – knowing where to go seemed to be a guessing game. Even more fun, I’m sure, for recent immigrants for whom English is a second language. Peering from over-sized portraits, the eyes of Pres. Bush and V.P. Cheney, with his ever-present smirk, followed us as we wandered the lobby area. We finally asked a security guard (whose primary duty seemed to be tossing used “visitor” stickers into the trash as people left) where we should go. He suggested a starting place and we finally escaped Cheney’s sneer and headed down a hallway. Inside this information office was a waiting room of 30 or so chairs bolted in rows, and two small windows, behind which, we assumed, was the information we needed. A family was just leaving one of the windows; otherwise, the room was completely empty.

My friend approached one of the windows and told the middle-aged woman there that he needed some information. She cut him short. “Do you have an appointment?”

He looked around the empty room. “No, but I only need to ask a couple of questions.”

“Sorry, can’t help you. Not without an appointment.”

“Really?” He smiled at her, and again, looked around the room. “But no one’s here.”

“You have to make an appointment, been that way for three years now. Security reasons.” She was enjoying this immensely.

“Well, alright, then can I make an appointment?”

“Not here. You have to do that online.”

“So I can’t make an appt. here now?” As she gleefully shook her head, he asked if, by any chance, computer terminals might be available in the building. “No, not now. Maybe in a few years, but no.”

The absurdity of the whole exchange might have had me laughing, had his frustration not be so palpable, and had her thrill at sending someone out not been quite so obvious.

We left the building, Cheney leering at our backs, and once in the car – oh, I failed to mention that we’d paid $6 for a parking space in their lot for this little exchange – I suggested the nearby library. He agreed, but first, a stop in the federal court building. This would be the Eagleton building, a beautiful skyscraper if you don’t mind that it blocks the view of the Arch from the main highway into downtown. Again, security, manned by enough guards to stop an insurgency (common, of course, in downtown Midwestern cities). Ah, this building had a directory, so we headed to the office of the clerk, the seemingly logical first stop on a quest for records.

A pleasant young woman informed us that no, she had no idea where the records might be, but would find someone who did. We waited, briefly, in the elegant waiting room, quite different from the stark setting of USCIS. Obviously, attorneys and their employees who handle cases in federal court are worthy of finer digs than lowly immigrants trying to become citizens.  But another pleasant woman came out, and while she wasn’t sure where records from that era were held, she did know that she didn’t have them and offered to look it up for us. Pleasantly surprised, we waited. She returned a few minutes later, having been unable to access the information online because the District Court’s server was down, but she did bring two sheets of paper. These would prove, by the end of our downtown trek, to be the only useful information of the day. She directed us to the District Court building a couple of blocks away, where records from that era would be kept. She warned us that when she conducted a similar search for her grandfather a few years earlier, this office had been less than helpful. But she also included the name and phone number of a woman who had proved to be both nice and helpful, so we thanked her and left, filled with the tiniest bit of optimism. Fortunately, the dozen or so guards we’d encountered so far that day were still on post, keeping our democracy safe.  Whew.

We walked the two blocks to the District Court of Eastern Missouri and through further security. This time, his watch set off the alarm. It hadn’t in the two federal buildings, but apparently local security is tighter. And my cell phone was confiscated here – they gave me a coat-check-type tag with which to pick it up when I left. I’m unsure exactly what danger we posed as we kept track of time and stayed in touch with my kids, but there you go. Up to the records office, where six computer terminals sat useless, since said server was still down. The woman behind the counter was nice enough, but told my friend that the records were “probably” with the archives in Kansas City, and he could go to their website and look for them himself. He paused, confused. “And if I don’t find the record, how do I get a letter stating that it doesn’t exist?” She, not surprisingly, did not know. The only reason, I’m sure, he didn’t sputter obscenities at her was because he still had that name and phone number of the woman who would, we’d been told, be helpful. Well, no, he’s the patient one. I’m the one who would have sputtered the obscenities . . . but I digress.

We left there, after retrieving my cell phone from a guard who had to have weighed 350+ pounds. While I in no way wish to demean those who are weight-challenged, I seriously doubted he’d have been able to catch me had I sprinted off to wreak any kind of havoc. I guess that’s why they are armed.

Off to the library, where we couldn’t access the Internet after all because neither of us was carrying our library cards. We both have them but didn’t realize we’d need them that particular day.

Since I work at St. Louis University nearby, I suggested going to my office and making his USCIS appointment from there. He lives in St. Charles, you see, a far-flung county, so this trip into downtown was not exactly convenient. Running home was not an option. Even though I live in the city, my computer was at his house, so I was no help there. I could help, though, by accessing my office computer for him, so we headed there. He got online and made his coveted appointment with the immigration folks . . . for an hour later. All that for an appointment the same day. We grabbed hot dogs from a woman vending them on a downtown corner and waited.

Returning to USCIS shortly before his appointed time, we re-parked and made the security trek yet again. Again, Cheney smirked at us, and all I could think was that were I trying to immigrate into this country, that portrait alone would cause me to rethink my decision. His super-sized face seemed to be daring anyone to try to become a citizen. Just try, he taunts. Just try, and watch how impossible we make the process!!

This time when we entered the stark waiting room, two people, obviously smart enough to have made their appointments ahead of time, were at the windows. We sat and listened. One of them, a blonde woman accompanied by her husband/lawyer/father (hard to tell, really), was asking how long “it” would take. “So we can expect to receive that in the next 90 days?” Her accent was strong but her English was sound. The man behind the little window shrugged.

“Could be. Could take longer, though. We’re never sure on those.” They stood there uncertainly. “We just can’t ever tell.”

They thanked the man (for what, I’m not sure), and hesitantly backed away from the window as if they were sure he would give them more, something that might make sense or give them an idea about what to expect. He didn’t, so they left.

At the other window, a tall Asian woman with perfect English was talking to the woman who’d thrown us out earlier. She was supposed to attend a business meeting in Singapore, but apparently didn’t have the correct visa. She’d traveled outside the US previously on this particular kind of travel visa, but the woman in the window informed her that she could no longer use it. “But I used it last year, and had no trouble returning.”

“Well, you can’t use it now. Now, if you leave, you can’t come back in. Your passport doesn’t have the right information.”

“Last time, I applied to update it when I was in Singapore, and I had no problem.” She sounded intelligent and well-traveled.

“Yes, last time you could have. But now you can’t.” The woman stared from her window, and then finally decided to explain. “Now, you have pending citizenship, so you can’t leave. You can’t go anywhere until your paperwork comes through. If you leave now, you can’t return.”

I was baffled by this – her citizenship is almost complete, yet she was being told she is currently residing in . . . limbo?

“Your paperwork should be through any time now. Come back in a week and check with me.”

The young woman shook her head. “I can’t next week, because I’ll be in Washington D.C. I’ll be there for the summer, remember?  I’ll be working at the World Bank.”

The USCIS woman told her to go to the local office in Washington a week and half prior to her planned departure and explain it all to them again. They might be able to rush it through if she hasn’t received it yet, and rushing it would take a week, so she’d have time. Maybe. If not? Well, too bad. This woman, who works for the World Bank, for crying out loud, was at the mercy of this snide sentry guarding the land of dead-end paper trails.

As she walked away from the window, she caught our eyes and rolled hers with a weary smile. My friend whispered, “Are you sure it’s worth it?” She said no, she was not sure at all.

He approached the window at his appointed time, going not to the woman who seemed to thrive on causing inconvenience, but to the man at the other window. He explained politely that he needed to know how to search naturalization records from the early 1900s. The man told him that those records are housed in Kansas City in the Archives. My friend explained that actually, he was certain that no such record existed, but needed a letter saying so. The man asked him why he needed it. “For personal reasons,” my friend told him.

“What reasons?” the man asked, immediately suspicious. My friend, already completely put off by this office and their policies, didn’t say. “Just personal,” he repeated. The man glared at him, knowing that absolutely no reason existed for my friend to tell him. He wasn’t applying for anything, merely looking for a public record of long ago. I decided this employee must be, at heart, a bully, used to having the power to ask the nervous souls at his window anything he wanted, knowing they would answer. They would turn over any personal tidbit he requested, probably while cowering in mortal fear that their requests would be denied and that they and all of their family would be shipped off to a land they’d barely escaped in the first place. He didn’t need this information. He didn’t even want it, probably, just thought it should be his for the asking. I did realize, even at the time, that my assessment could be entirely unreasonable and unfair, and decided that perhaps Cheney’s evil eye had gotten to me. My friend, having been given the address of the Kansas City Archive office, simply asked if there was was a fee for having a search conducted.

“No fee,” the man told him, “but it will take awhile, probably six months or so. A lot of film to look through.” He probably hoped this would deter us, but we were just surprised it could be done for no charge. Seems funny, really, as he’d be willing to pay and get it in a timely manner. No, there simply wasn’t enough demand for something like this to bother charging for it, even though charging for an infrequent request made perfectly reasonable sense. Instead, they charge exorbitant fees for what they know people really need. The paperwork for requesting immigration for an orphan, for example, used to cost somewhere around $200 or so, back in 1999, the last time I applied for it. Now, I saw, as I read forms while I waited, that same piece of paperwork is $565. Almost tripled in eight years. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that international adoptions have increased dramatically over that same amount of time. The paperwork is no different, just more expensive. Stick it to those they know will find a way to pay. Is that capitalism via supply and demand, or is that just . . . meanness?  Oh, wait, I’m digressing again . . .

So after hours spent downtown, we came away with a woman’s phone number and a couple of addresses of people and places who might be able to help. We were passed from one office to the next, forced to be leered at by our vice president an uncomfortable number of times, forced to leave an empty office to find a computer to make an appointment to return to the same office to spend a grand total of ninety seconds speaking to someone. And everyone’s records are stored somewhere else . . . they think.  No one really knows for sure.
I get the storage thing, but would it be possible to store all of one type of record in the same place? Or is that too . . . . organized, for government work?

The kicker came later, though, back at a county records office, where my friend needed to get certified copies of birth certificates for himself and his late wife, both born here in the state. He filled out a form for each of them. These forms required the person’s name, birthdate, parents’ names and county of birth. He carried them to the window, and told the young woman whose he was requesting. She asked if he and his wife were married at the time of her death, and he said yes. She asked why he needed it, and he told her. She asked to see his ID, and he showed her. Mind you, the request for his wife’s had nothing on it stating who he was or why he was asking for it – he did not have to sign anything stating that he’d been married to her, nor show any proof either that he’d been married to her or that she’d died. No problem, apparently.

The woman looked into the computer and asked him if it was possible that her father’s name was spelled differently than he’d written. He said yes. It was a fairly common name with two fairly common spellings and he’d given the wrong one. No problem again. Then, she said, “Oh, but we need the exact date of birth. This isn’t it. Well, the month and year are right, but not the day.” He shook his head and smiled ruefully, he couldn’t remember. I knew it, though, and told him – I only remembered it because it corresponded with an important date in my own family. He asked the clerk if that was correct; he’d reversed, in his head, the dates of their anniversary and her birthday. She laughed and said, “Oh yeah, you men always do that.” No problem yet again, and within minutes, he’d paid for and received both birth certificates. So if you know those few bits of information, I guess you can get a certified copy of anyone’s birth certificate as long as you are willing to pose as someone who should have access to it. No connection to her was apparent or proven, as obviously only her maiden name is on the birth certificate. Maybe we just looked honest? I guess it’s a bad idea, then to share your parents’ names and city of birth with just anyone . . . . All they’d need after that is your birthdate, and anyone could get your birth certificate.

Yikes. Thankfully, though, if someone then uses your birth certificate as part of some elaborate scheme to foil the government at a federal building out there in Any City, USA, they will promptly be stopped in their tracks by 12 burly security guards standing around, day after day, waiting for something really, really bad to happen.  Getting past them to the inside won’t really matter, because no matter what they do, no one will be able to find the paperwork, anyway.


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Category: American Culture, Good and Evil, History, Law, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Egads! Sounds like the entire system has already imploded. Because Homeland Security might be monitoring, I won't ask you to report back with any thoughts of violence you might have had, especially those involving the woman in the window.

    I do understand why the woman in the window was so obstreperous. It's because people probably keep asking her things all day.

    I'll end with a couple quotes about bureaucrats:

    "The perfect bureaucrat everywhere is the man who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility."

    Brooks Atkinson (1894 – 1984), Once Around the Sun, 1951

    "In a bureaucratic system, useless work drives out useful work."

    Milton Friedman (1912 – 2006)

  2. Mindy Carney says:

    Well, thanks for wading through my lengthy rambling, Erich! And yes, the woman behind the window, I'm sure, derives little job satisfaction from working for the government, so she must take her pleasure where she finds it. Which, in this case, was in exerting her Power. She was a happy camper.

    The amount of money spent on simply maintaining the bureaucracy and accomplishing nothing at all is utterly mind-boggling. All I will say is that if posts like mine have been monitored to any great length, the thick glass in front of the woman is perfectly understandable.

  3. Ben says:

    If it is any consolation, other people have similar issues. Recently I came home to the water having been turned off. Not really worth shedding tears over, so I paid the reconnect fee of $90 (45 off and 45 on, but does anybody really just get the water turned "off", of course not, so they charge you again!), and the outstanding bill which was only about $150 for a grand total of $240. It was not even that I was behind on bills, in fact, all the bills are deducted directly (from a bank account) except the water bill. I had simply not seen the bill, it had been stacked with some old mail of my roomate.

    So, being proactive, I called the water company to have all future bills deducted automatically (after first trying to get the $90 refunded to no avail). To make a long story short, they said that I am no longer eligible for the direct billing, since we missed a payment.

    Another time I ended up paying 3000 dollars in fines for having my car insurance lapse, without my knowledge. Ya, that one stung a bit.

    Okay now for the funny clips, enjoy…


  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Bullies gravitate to jobs where they may exert arbitrary power over others and have such petty (or sometimes not so petty) abuses condoned or tacitly accepted by their superiors.

    The typical example is the Police force or prison guards. Less obvious are the positions behind the window or behind an interview desk in any large bureaucracy. Government offices, the DMV, HR interviewers…

    How do I cope? As an often bullied child, I learned to project the idea that I am one of those whom the bully protects; an ally against all those who approach such individuals with anger and fear. It helps to get to such offices early in a shift, before the bad mood sets in.

    As to the huge size of bureaucracy, read about Parkinson's Law that states (in part) that the size of bureaucracy increases at a steady rate (generally 5-7% per year) regardless of the function or size of an organization.

  5. Ben says:

    sorry this was supposed to be the second link

  6. Ben says:

    Speaking of immigration, I was wondering where folks here stand. Is it really fair to tighten up the borders? Isn't America great because of it's immigrants? What is the difference between an Immigrant and an "Illegal" Immigrant? Is it just a term/law we have created in hopes of keeping our clubhouse private? I want to share with everybody the great nation of America, but even I realize that completely opening the borders could be detrimental to society. I am pretty sure I don't like the idea of building a huge wall and deporting "illegals". There was also some recent legislation, or failure to legislate…


  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    As an American born son of immigrants, I feel that more effort needs to be made to validate immigrants that can be absorbed, and to make it clear to would-be immigrants what the true economic picture is over here.

    The limits of the formerly boundless resources of the U.S. are becoming ever more clear. The easy oil and wet conditions of the 20th century are fast passing, and the prosperity they brought may well be in jeopardy. In order to avoid the draconian measures that China is facing, we need to determine and somehow manage a supportable population limit.

    That is, how many people can this land support for the next 500 years at better than mere subsistence? Our poor citizens multiply significantly faster than immigrants can infiltrate, so the problem may be more one of education than immigration.

    As for keeping terrorists out: The Iron Curtain of Berlin was the tightest border on the planet, and only had to circle half of one city. It did little to cut down on traffic of those determined to get in or out. There is no way to stop a determined man. How much do we want to spend on a broom to sweep back the tide?

  8. Ben says:

    Right, it becomes a global issue. That's what most people don't seem to get. Ironic that the way to save America is to first (or simultaneously) save the rest of the world.

  9. Erika Price says:

    Mindy: the whole gauntlet you and your friend had to run especially stings, I think, because if the bureaucracy ran more smoothly and effectively, you wouldn't have to pay such exorbitant fees in the first place.

    I wish I could say that such a nightmare only happens in your area, or your state. But the exact opposite seems true. I've waited on a death certificate since February. After repeated phone calls and pesterings, and fully knowing that the coroner finished with the document months ago, I still can't get it. I have legal and financial loose-ends to tie up, but I can't until someone in the bureaucracy goes through the trouble of licking an envelope and sending a piece of paper my way.

  10. Mindy Carney says:

    Sounds typical, Erika – bummer. I think the whole concept of the overblown bureaucracy is more than I can handle – that is what makes me nuts. Good luck – –

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    Gosh, no wonder government buildings need so many security guards: with the horrible way so many government workers treat the public, and the enjoyment some of them seem to get from doing it, they must all live in constant fear for their lives.

    So much security to protect that largely empty USCIS office makes me wonder when government will consist of buildings with nothing inside them except security guards.

    Mindy's tribulations remind me of a customs official I worked with years ago, who delighted in inspecting and, if possible, detaining every shipment my company imported. One of his favorite games was to detain shipments of computer CRT monitors on the grounds that they were not certified to comply with federal regulations for television receivers…never mind that the monitors had no television receivers inside them and, thus, did not need to comply with those regulations. One day he got so bold as to suggest I call his boss in Washington, DC, which, of course, I immediately did. His boss promptly asked me "what idiot" had given me this run around. I did not get the last laugh from this experience — the customs official continued to be a PITA — but at least I did not have any more problems with CRT monitors.

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