Road to U.S. Is Paved With Humiliations

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A few years ago, my Ukrainian-born wife and I were killing time in a waiting room in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. We sat in plastic chairs, which lined three of the walls; the fourth was a row of consular officials behind glass, and while you meekly awaited their summons you couldn't help but listen to everyone else's interviews.

The consular officials acted like this was utterly routine and banal (which for them it was); the applicants, like all of their hopes and dreams were at stake (which they were).

An older couple came scurrying obsequiously up and shoved their paperwork through the hole in the window. The consular official began asking bored-sounding questions, to which the couple gave eager-to-please answers.

It says here there's supposed to be a Baba Klava as well, the young official asked -- where's Baba Klava?

Baba Klava, the couple answered with apologetic grins, is in a wheelchair, and since they couldn't get her inside they left her out front.

A collective gasp shot through the room, as we all realized that some poor babushka had been left in a wheelchair on the sidewalk for perhaps a couple of hours. All eyes focused on the young consular official, who was starting to look angry -- the suspense mounted; would we finally witness a human emotion on the other side of the glass?

The young official sighed petulantly. "Is it still raining?" he asked -- and again a collective gasp shot through the room, as many of us suddenly remembered it had been pouring rain and probably was still.

Oh, yes, said the obsequious couple, with all of their eager-to-please enthusiasm, yes! Still raining!

"Damn!" said the consular official. The suspense peaked, as he glared accusingly at the older couple before him. "Damn! Now I have to go get my coat."

He didn't care about an elderly woman left in a wheelchair in the rain for two hours; he cared about himself, a young guy in his 20s, having to go out in the rain for two minutes to talk with her.

I, at least, am finally free of that particular circle of hell. My wife at last got her U.S. citizenship this year -- after 11 years of marriage. She would have gotten it years sooner but our time working abroad for the Dutch-Russian-owned Moscow Times counted against us. As one U.S. immigration official put it to us, I should have been working for "an American company like the World Bank -- you know, a company that carries American ideology abroad."

Looking back, what my wife hated most was the incessant fingerprinting. She was fingerprinted at least a half-dozen times -- sometimes within mere months of the previous fingerprinting. It's a fussy, time-consuming and messy affair -- ink gets all over, and they aren't always good about having towels or water around to clean it off. And, unless you're good at keeping your sense of humor and perspective, it's insulting.

So it's incredibly disheartening to think that in just a month's time, Americans, Brits, Canadians and others who don't need U.S. visas will be flying into the United States and waltzing past long lines -- where Russians, Indians, Mexicans and other nationalities who do need visas will all be getting fingerprinted and will all be collecting Baba Klava-like stories of countless thoughtless humiliations to share back home.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. []