Our lives were in the hands of tired officers

The scene was strangely familiar.

I was sitting among rows of other foreigners, waiting for my name to be called. I had been summoned to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center in Charlotte to be fingerprinted, a key step in my journey toward citizenship.

Others were there to renew their permanent residency cards or to be interviewed about visa applications. Many had waited hours already.

It was the same hushed atmosphere I had encountered at the immigration office in Phoenix several years earlier and in Boston when I arrived in the United States as a foreign student from Sweden in 1989.

We were all legal immigrants who had followed the rules, and we all felt vulnerable.

The USCIS officers had our lives in their hands. They would decide whether a marriage to a foreign national was legitimate, whether to approve a green card or whether somebody's mother or father would be allowed into the country.

I was luckier than most. I had paid lawyers to help me through the maze of paperwork, in return for fees that -- over the years -- amounted to several thousand dollars.

Even so, my lawyer in Raleigh could not guarantee that my citizenship would be approved in a timely manner, or at all. I had friends who had waited nearly three years to be naturalized.

That's because the U.S. immigration system appears, at least to many legal immigrants, to operate under its own schedule and own rules and with little accountability to the people it serves.

That helps explain why nobody protested when the clerk at the Charlotte check-in desk barked to several Spanish-speaking mothers with small children to step outside. The children had become restless and whiny from the long wait, and then they had been relegated to the parking lot on an 85-degree day.

My American-born husband was aghast.

"I have never seen Americans being treated that way by a government agency," he whispered.

Another hour or so went by, and then the clerk brought more bad news.

The officers were so backed up, he announced, that nobody else would be heard that day. Only those whose names had already been called, and who had received a ticket with a number on it, were allowed to stay.

An American with a foreign wife lost his temper and began to argue with the clerk. A woman lamented that she had driven all the way from Morehead City to make her appointment, to no avail. The people without tickets soon began to trickle off.

I stayed, because I knew I had a trump card.

Unlike most people that day, I could make my case in perfect English.

Unlike most of my fellow immigrants, I had two college degrees and had dressed in business clothes. And unlike most, I was white.

So I quietly walked up to the counter to ask a tired-looking officer whether an exception could be made.

He took pity on me, and word got back to the clerk that I was in after all. My feeling of panic switched to one of gratitude. My citizenship application remained on track, and I was sworn in a citizen just a few months later.

Driving back home an American that sunny November day, I felt love for the country that had welcomed me and given me opportunities that immigrants to most other nations only can dream of.

I also thought of the Mexican mothers who had had to wait in the parking lot and of the 12 million or more illegal immigrants who work harder than I do without ever getting the chance to be sworn in.

Just by sheer luck am I not one of them.

(Karin Rives is a former business writer for The News & Observer. She became a U.S. citizen in November.)