Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This is America: Immigration and disability

I've made a  mistake of wanting to make the trip to the Jacksonville Immigration Office by myself  once.  This was maybe three years ago. Finding a ride was always a problem for me. Somebody had to sacrifice half of their day driving back and forth, waiting until they took my fingerprints and the appointments were never set for early in the morning or sometime in the afternoon, and they were mostly in the middle of the workday. I figured this one time, instead of calling all the friends I can think of, asking, pleading to get them to take time off work on a very short notice to take me to a place about an hour and a half away I could do it myself. I took a shuttle from Gainesville to the Jacksonville airport, because that's where they drop you off and from there I called a taxi. But from there, my problems only started. They were not ready for someone like me to arrive at the center. I guess they don't see people with disabilities there very often, especially those of us who are independent and get  around without a guardian or a caretaker. I came to Jacksonville by myself. Nothing but me, my notice and my cell phone wallet. They were used to people arriving in cars. The drill was very simple. You leave everything but your documents and your keys in your car. My problem was I didn't have a car or anyone to leave my belongings with. I couldn't leave my cellphone at home. I was in a strange town, in a wheelchair and vulnerable. I needed it in case of an emergency and to call a taxi to take me back to the airport. At the spot I've learnt that if I was to make the appointment I was summoned to, I was not gonna be able to take my cellphone or my wallet in with me and there's no deposit I can leave it with. I could see how the electronic device might have been considered a safety issue- who knows what something masquerading as a cell phone in reality may be- perhaps a trigger- if their solution wasn't for me to go bury my belongings in the ground  right in front of the building or hide it in the bushes. Yes, you read it right. I was told to throw my credit cards and cell phone into the ground in front of Immigration Center before my appointment.  Security guards have given me a plastic bag so I would find them later.  Immigration reform  discussions take center stage in Washington this week. I wanted to bring up an aspect that not too many people think about. What happens when immigration and disability issues collide. We think of America as an embodiment of disability empowerment and accessibility ideas. At least in theory. Americans with Disabilities Act and its various state incarnations could serve as a model of inclusion for many countries worldwide. You'd expect governmental buildings and programs to have proper programs and procedures, to be mindful of people with special needs. But you couldn't be more wrong. When I went to the USCIS building, I got a feeling they were not very mindful of people's needs, period. This is the scene I witnessed. An Asian man enters the building. He is instructed by the guard- go to the wall and read the instructions. There is nothing in the said instructions other than pick up and fill out the form. The guard of course could have told him, pick up and fill out a form. but instead he was dismissively sent away to the wall to follow orders. The man had hard time understanding what he was and was not allowed to take in as he was struggling with English. That prompted additional dismissive remarks. The guard, instead of assisting was issuing commands and it felt to me that the point of that whole exercise was to establish a particular rapport, a submissive role when you enter the building. Every time you file for a change of status with Immigration you get a notice to have your fingerprints taken. It's automatic- mine must change every year, because they made me go four times, I believe. Every ride meant the trouble of finding someone willing to make the trip. The date and times were set by the office, you my ask them to reschedule, but again, you have no say in what they set it to. If you don't go - you forfeit the application. Some of the dates they picked were so soon there was no way I would have somebody take me on such short notice. If I wrote them about my disability and hardships they would give me a few extra days. They have never offered to come to me, meet me anywhere closer or spare the trip since they've already had my fingerprints on file with my prior filings. They have never made any accommodations or arrangements to help me get there  or assist me at the building. The real drama was the actual fingerprint scanning process. My right hand is spastic. My fingers get stiff and I guess they don't get the right impression on the surface. Pressing and rolling was a challenge. We've had to do it again and again, because the system just wouldn't take it in. With every attempted I got more stressed, tense and tired, especially since the system was higher than my arm level. Another thing that was not designed with people in wheelchairs in mind. And this is nortt a left versus right problem. This is also not something that George Bush left behind. The last time I was ordered to come to Jacksonville was 2010.  But is it really that surprising? And  Consider the fact that American embassy in Warsaw, a governmental building, a representation of the country has no wheelchair access at all. Something that should be inviting and speak of inclusion, something that says "This is America" had flights and flights of stairs people had to carry me over to get my visa or to participate in a moot court competition. But maybe now it's time to do something about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment