A Reminder of Why People Hate Bureaucrats


Today I went to the passport office in D.C. to find out what the hell was going on with our daughter Mei's passport application. We adopted Mei in China last summer, and in March we applied for a passport, with an eye toward a trip to Israel in late June. A couple of weeks ago we received a letter, dated April 20, from one C. Pamela Holliday at the D.C. passport office, asking for Mei's certificate of citizenship, which we had sent in along with the application. Ms. Holliday said that if we did not have the certificate of citizenship (which we didn't, since we had sent it to the passport office), we could send a translation of the Chinese adoption decree, another document we had already submitted.

Since receiving Ms. Holliday's letter, I've been calling the State Department's toll-free passport help line every few days, trying to find out how we could satisfy requirements we had already met (and which we could not meet again, since the passport office already had all the originals, which they require instead of copies). Each time I was told to expect a call from the D.C. passport office (the help line personnel are located in New Hampshire) within 48 hours. I'm still waiting. One of the help line people confided that "it sucks" because mere citizens cannot contact the passport office directly; all they can do is pester the people in New Hampshire, who in turn pester the people in D.C. (where the files are located) with e-mails in the vain hope that they will deign to respond.

Yesterday, worried that we'd have to cancel next month's trip, I went to the local post office, which is where we had applied in the first place. I was thinking maybe Mei's certificate of citizenship had been found lying on the floor there. The passport agent at the post office suggested I go to the passport office in D.C., which until that moment I hadn't realized was an option. She also called the passport office and was informed that all they needed was our "second adoption decree," the one issued in the U.S. We don't have one of those.

Today, after a 90-minute wait (I know–it could have been worse), a "supervisor" at the D.C. passport office (not the mysterious C. Pamela Holliday) said that "upon review," it turned out Mei's file was complete and they could issue her passport after all; I could pick it up in a couple of hours. So why did they send the letter? He didn't know. Why did they specifically ask for Mei's certificate of citizenship, leading us to believe they had lost this vitally important document, when they had it all the time? He didn't know. I told him the mistake had caused us a lot of anxiety. No response. Throughout the exchange he did not look me in the eye once, and I don't think it was due to embarrassment. There was no admission of error, no apology. While I was dealing with him he continued talking to his co-workers as if I weren't there. His attitude seemed to be that as a Passport Office Supervisor he did not have to explain himself to anyone, and I was lucky he saw fit to help me out.

The worst part was that I wanted to say something to the effect that an apology would be nice, but the way he told me that he had decided to issue Mei a passport led me to believe he had the discretion to decide otherwise. I was pretty sure he didn't–we had met all the legal requirements, after all–but why take the chance? So instead of asking for an apology, I thanked him and muttered "dickhead" as I left. Even now I'm a little worried that he heard me and that when I stop by the "will call" window Mei's file and passport will have inexplicably disappeared. Thus do passport applications for foreign-born adopted children make cowards of us all. Or maybe just me.


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  1. My furriner of a wife once stood in line for three hours at the INS before it opened (them’s the rules in L.A.), was told repeatedly by a line-worker that people seeking “Advanced Parole” ($95 permission to visit your home country while the Green Card application is still pending) can just go over here to line XJ27, so she went over to line XJ27, and when she got to the guy behind the desk, he said “This is the wrong line for Advanced Parole. NEXT!”

    When she asked what she should do, he told her she had to go back to the end of the line she had been waiting in for three hours. NEXT! (While craning his neck around her.) At this, she lost her temper. “Jesus fucking Christ!” she exclaimed.

    And for that profaning of the Son, she was escorted off the premisis by a security guard, and told she could not come back until tomorrow.

  2. As a litigator, I spend a great deal of my time sweet-talking and bringing burnt offerings to various clerks and court coordinators who in practice have the power of life and death (or at least the power of getting you a vital hearing scheduled prior to some deadline…or not). There is plenty that they are supposed to do, but when push comes to shove, there ain’t shit they HAVE to do if they decide they don’t want to.

  3. Having to deal with “legacy INS” (or whatever it is called), I couldn’t help cackling with glee…

  4. Jacob, I only wish that everyone in America could, at one time or another, have the kind of radicalizing experience that you describe. When one sees the true face of government — even a supposedly “benevolent” government in a so-called “democratic” nation — it is not so hard to entertain and even embrace libertarianism afterward.

    I have had run-ins with the IRS (over my own taxes) and the INS (over my attempts to help a foreign-born worker with incredible high-tech talents get a US work visa). In each case, I encountered official behavior similar to that you endured. I hope all works out for you and your daughter, from here on out. My past experience, however, would indicate otherwise, so be strong, and best of luck to you.

  5. I suspect that if there is ever a revolution in this country, it will start at the counter of a DMV somewhere.

  6. Wait until bureaucrats run even more aspects of healthcare.

  7. Matt,
    It?s only a 3 hour wait in LA? Shit, at the Santa Ana office, you have to get in line at around midnight to get a good spot (in a lovely neighborhood, I assure you). My friend calls it the Santa Ana street party. INS is the most absurd of all government agencies because unlike the passport office, the DMV the people the INS “serves” can?t vote and isn?t very sympathetic.

    Number 6,
    The DMV was the final straw in my conversion to libertarianism. After waiting 5 hours to get a new license (not an exaggeration, it was the midtown Manhattan DMV), including one hour in the line to figure out which line to stand in (my personal favorite), I decided that if the government can?t handle something as simple as getting drivers licenses to its citizens in an efficient manner, there ain?t nothing it can do right.

    The fucked up thing is, compared to some countries, like Egypt, our agencies are the models in efficiency. Growing up I was regaled of stories where my dad would wait in line for 3 hours, the office would close at 1 PM instead of the posted 5 PM and it wasn?t until he saw people going into the side door and decided to sell out his principles that he was able to get any service. So imagine dealing with the 3 hour INS line 4 times and then having to pay a bribe on top of all your troubles.

  8. the INS seems to be an asshole magnet. the way they’ve dealt with my aunt’s family – her mother is sick, my aunt is going through chemo, etc – is so absurdly rude. like the people who work there are just pissed to have the job in the first place, and offended that anyone actually wants to visit their place of work in search of, you know…service.

  9. Mo — Good God. One of my favorite things about the L.A. INS is that almost nobody who works there speaks Spanish. I’ve seen at least two examples where they begged for bilingual people waiting in line to translate….

  10. I thought they changed the law so that citizenship is automatic upon finalization of the adoption. We have two kids from Korea. Our first came home in 1997. We had to apply for citizenship and received a ceriticate of citizenship at the end of the process. Our second came home in 1999. Based on the intervening change in the law, I thought citizenship was automatic; hence we did nothing and have no certificate. Do I need to be doing something here?

  11. I’m sorry you’ve had such a bad experience.

    Here in Massachusetts, the DMV implemented a call number system. The only time you have to stand in line is to be issued a number by a clerk. The clerk asks why you are there and then assigns you a alphanumeric code based on what service you need.

    You can then patiently sit around until your number is called and flashes big board.

  12. Spend some time doing paperwork in Eastern Europe, you will be begging for the well-oiled, smooth-functioning profit machine that is the DMV/INS etc etc

  13. Re: DMVs

    Funny that in Chicago, (which as you probably all know is run by the extremely corrupt Daly admin.) the DMV downtown is a model of efficiency. Someone tells you which line to stand in as soon as you get in, and I managed to get a temporary plate and new license in under 1/2 an hour.

    Sure it’s the Illinois Secretary of State who’s ultimately responsible, but having been to a DMV office farther out of the city, I’m thinking I owe something to Daly now.

    Doesn’t this support the idea that local bureaucracies are somewhat more efficient than big federal bureaucracies?

  14. My wife, Morag, is a Scotish citizen who is a permanent resident here in the U.S. Her permanent resident green card has to be renewed every 10 years. We went to the INS office here in Columbus Ohio for her first renewal recently. I must admit, we were prepared for the worst. We brought books, drinks and food for a week. I wanted to bring a tent and sleeping bags but Morag said she would consider that rude. Imagine my surprise when the whole renewal process took less than 1/2 an hour! I guess one of the benifits of living in a cowtown like Columbus is there are no lines of aliens to stand in.

  15. I have a story that goes back a few years, but its still relevent.

    I have a younger sister, adopted from Korea. When my dad was trying to get her citizenship finalized, the asked him for a number of documents, plus a check to pay for the services. Thankfully, he kept photocopies of everything…

    The INS sent him back a letter, explaining that they had received the documents, but were still waiting for the check. My dad knew they had the check because they had already cashed it, so he sent them a photocopy of the cancelled check. They replied that yes, they had a check – now what was it for? He sent them a photocopy of the documents, to which they responded that they had all that, now wheres the check? And so on…

    Finally, my father decided to go to the INS in downtown Boston. At the time, they had a number system – you got a number, in the order in which you arrived, and they only served a certain number of cases per day. The office opened at 8:00 AM, which is the time he arrived – to find that all of the numbers for that day had already been handed out! Apparently, people started lining up well before sunrise.

    He waited around for a while, despondant, unitl he noticed one of the security guards scalping line numbers (!). He went over to the guard and explained that he was just an innocent guy, trying to help his daughter, and that he hadn’t brought any money because he was too naive to know that bribed were required to deal with the INS. The guard looked him over, decided that he was telling the truth, and gave hima ticket for free – to be the last person seen that day.

    That night at 7:00, after waiting all day to be seen, he was finally called over to the desk. He explained the situation, and the INS worker just started laughing. She explained that the INS was housed on two seperate floors in the building, with a turf-war between the two office managers. They refused to cooperate on ANYTHING, and if the check went to one floor and the documents to the other, they would refuse to communicate this with eash other!

    Up to that point, my Dad had been a life-long Democrat.

  16. We have a surprisingly efficient DMV office here in lower Manhattan, with the number board as described above – took me less than one hour to apply for my learner’s permit, and to take & pass the written test. The post office, on the other hand, remains the Kafka-esque nightmare we all know and despise (“Go stand in that line over there!” — “Uh, the really long line?” — “Yeah.” — You stand in line for awhile. “Why isn’t this line moving? Where is everybody?” — “Oh, she’s at lunch.”)

  17. Jacob,

    I say this with all seriousness — call your congressman, they LOVE stuff like this. My wife was a staffer for some time and cases like these, where the “man” got an opportunity to look like a hero for a constiuent and not lift a finger (his staffers do), came up, he leapt at them. They figure that you’ll tell all of your friends about his heroism in settling the dispute and they’ll tell their friends.

    Meanwhile, the staffers gear up for WWIII with some red-tape laying MF’er.

  18. Momma alwas said that the 9/11 terrorists where not terrorists until they tried getting their student visas!

  19. Hmmm… let’s see.

    Jacob adopts a child from an atheistic, commie country. Trouble ensues.

    Matt’s wife uses the Lord’s name in vain. Trouble ensues.

    I guess the lesson is, that if you want the trouble-free Express Lane, you have to swear fealty to Pat Robertson.

  20. He waited around for a while, despondant, unitl he noticed one of the security guards scalping line numbers (!).

    I can’t wait to tell my dad this. It’ll make him homesick.

    Here in Massachusetts, the DMV implemented a call number system. The only time you have to stand in line is to be issued a number by a clerk. The clerk asks why you are there and then assigns you a alphanumeric code based on what service you need.

    Same with the DMV I was talking about and the ones out in CA as well. The line to see the clerk to get a number is the “line to figure out which line to stand in” because, that’s what it is. God I hate the DMV.

    Is that the one on 32nd? The only two that existed in Manhattan when I lived there were in Harlem and 32nd. Did they finally decide that the population might need more than 2 DMVs.

    As far as the post office goes, they can rot in hell. I had positive experiences until they stopped delivering mail because my dog got loose and barked (no physical contact, just barking) at the mailman. The same fucker that taunts her everyday when he drops off the mail. Curse their black hearts.

    This thread makes me wonder something. Does every libertarian have at least one government horror story. It would sure explain why we all hate government. Kinda like why I can’t eat Arby’s after one bad experience 18 years ago.

  21. Here in Canada, where I live about 10 min from the US border, we who frequently cross-border shop, go out to eat, etc, have recently been bummed by the as-yet-unclarified declarations that we’ll all need passports to enter the US. Not because we disagree in principle, but because of the Hieronymous Bosch-nightmare nature of our passport office.

  22. I say this with all seriousness — call your congressman, they LOVE stuff like this.

    Cap’n Goiter is right – call your friggin’ Congressman. I had a similar experience with the Goddamned Government?, and I thought the dude was gonna make a mess in his pants. And he actually helped.

  23. You know, the incompetence of the DMV has been quite helpful. When I lived in northern virginia, I completely failed the eye exam but they still gave me my licenese. In DC, my license had been expired for more than a year, but they renewed me without any hassles. This is in addition to failing another eye exam (this time with glasses that were in need of an updated prescription).

  24. One thing Pennsylvania has done right has been to semi-privatize some DMV functions to notaries and insurance companies. Pretty much any function dealing with car ownership or registration (title work, tags, buying and selling, etc.) can be done at any one of numerous insurance offices for a fixed fee. It’s not perfect, however, since the State regulates the functions very heavily and the tellers at many of the offices have similar “agent of the State” attitudes as actual state employees. But there usually aren’t any lines.

    Anything to do with the actual driver’s license, unfortunately, still requires a trip to a PennDOT office…

  25. Mo,
    there is a DMV office near Wall St. I gather it’s fairly new.

  26. When I got my first passport about 8 years ago, I had to have an original birth certificate. I gave it to them – and never got it back. Along with my passport, which never arrived at my house. I had to go back to office and raise hell, take pictures again, etc. They had the new one at my door two days later. Never found out what happened to the other one.

    Which reminds me, I have to call L.A. county to give me a new birth certificate. That should go well…

  27. I wonder why a person needs a driver’s license anyway. Does having the piece of plastic make one a better driver? Does taking it away cause a person to lose the abiltiy to drive? In my opinion (and maybe yours as well) it is simply a gov’t tactic to keep tabs on people. It also causes people to give up basic rights in order to keep the ‘right’ to drive. “Behave or we will take your license from you!”

  28. Solyum — I *have* spent “some time doing paperwork in Eastern Europe,” and still I have never seen anything like the INS. OK, maybe Postabank in Hungary….

  29. This thread makes me wonder something. Does every libertarian have at least one government horror story. It would sure explain why we all hate government.

    Mo, I don’t think it’s just libertarians who get irked at bureaucratic bullshit. I don’t know anyone, libertarian, rebublican, or democrat, who doesn’t have at least one DMV/Post Office/INS/court system/etc. horror story. We just see it as further proof that the rotten system sucks while the others see a need for “streamlining.”

    My own story: Way back when I was 17 I was pulled over for running a red light. Needless to say, the light was yellow, officer. I suspect the cop may have just wanted to see my girlfriend’s 10″ mohawk up close, and I only got the ticket because she and I were embroiled in a petty argument whether one of her friends was a complete waste of space or not, and I basically handed over my license and registration and otherwise ignored the guy. Anyway, there’s a court date on the ticket and on the prescribed morning I show up at the courthouse with my father in tow (I was a minor at the time). We stood in a long line waiting to talk to a clerk to find out which court room to go to. When we finally reached the clerk we were informed that I was not on the list for that day, but if I would wait right there he would find out if his paperwork was simply incomplete. So we waited for him to deal with everyone in line who had come in behind us, and then he disappeared for so long that I can only assume he went to lunch. On the ticket, my appearance was sheduled for something like 10.30 am and it was now about noon. Eventually the clerk came back and said the court had no record of my ever even receiving a traffic violation. So we show the guy the ticket and he says the court’s copy must have been lost. So I guess it’s my lucky day since no one at the courthouse seems to know anything about me running a red light. Wasting the day standing around a courthouse sucks, but that’s better than wasting a day standing around a courthouse and paying a fine and paying an increase in my car insurance.

    Fast forward two years and I get pulled over for doing 35 in a 25 (damn school zones). It also turns out there’s a warrant out for my arrest for “failure to appear” in court for running a red light two years ago. So I spend the afternoon in a freezing cold jail cell until my girlfriend comes to bail me out. I go to another court a month later for this little problem and it turns out that what had happened was that red light ticket was filed at the wrong court. So while my dad and I were wasting our day at one courtroom, another was issuing a warrant. Nice. By this time I no longer have the original ticket which clearly shows the address of the other court on it, and the judge figures I’m making up this whole story, even though I’m sure he could have found the court’s copy of the ticket if he had wanted to. I should have called a lawyer, but I figured I was going to be screwed no matter what, and I had a silly belief that the courts would do the “right” thing. Instead, I was fined up the ying-yang and treated like a criminal when, from my point of view, all I had done was gone through a yellow light while a cop was waiting to make a left turn.

    So, yeah, I’m a libertarian.

  30. When i was two there was a hurricane in Kingston Town
    with a foot and a half of water
    Everyone was alright, but I cried all night
    It blew my alphabet blocks out of order

    And they say
    this boys born to be a bureaucrat
    born to be all obsessive and snotty
    I made my friends and relations fill long applications
    to get into my tenth birthday party

    But something changed when my man turned pro
    I was sorting but I wasn’t smiling
    He forget that it’s not about badges and ranks
    It’s supposed to be about the filing!

    We didn’t choose to be bureaucrats
    No that’s what our mighty Ja made us
    We treat people like swine and make them stand in line
    Even if nobody paid us

    They say the world looks down on the bureaucrats
    They say we’re anal, compulsive and wierd
    But when push comes to shove you gotta do what you love
    Even if it’s not a good idea

    They said i probably shouldn’t be a surgeon
    They poopooed my electric frankfurter
    They said I probably shouldn’t fly with just one eye
    I am Bender please insert girder

  31. Libertarians bitch about big city government horror. Republicans move to the burbs.

    I have had nothing but courteuous, efficient service from my suburban DMV. Before I moved here, I was able to get a truck titled and registered via FedEx with no hassles.

    The same cannot be said of downtown Houston, or heaven forbid, Hayward CA.

  32. George, you are correct: The adoption is considered complete before you return to the U.S., and as soon as you touch down here, the kid is a citizen. But if you want to prove she’s a citizen (e.g., to get her a Social Security number, so you can claim her as a dependent), it helps to have the certificate.

    I got the passport this afternoon, by the way. After being cheerful and remarkably well-behaved for most of the day (including a few hours at the nearby Borders, where we had lunch and I got some work done), Mei was crying hysterically by the time we left the passport office the second time, having missed her nap. I think she was expressing what everyone else in the waiting area was thinking.

  33. I’ll second linguist’s comment about the speed of the DMV in Chicago. Actually, to give credit where it’s due, it’s the Illinois Secretary of State’s Drivers’ Services Facility. I use the one up north on Elston avenue and they are surprisingly fast, and the staff have never misdirected me. I can remember long waits in that building back when I first got my license 20-something years ago, but the past 3 or 4 vists have been, well, maybe not McDonalds fast, but most times have been as fast a visit to my bank, and the worst case (written-test renewal) was still quicker than a visit to my doctor. It really is kind of amazing for a government agency. I’ve been at retail merchandise return counters that were slower.

  34. This thread makes me wonder something. Does every libertarian have at least one government horror story.

    Having been the object of not one but TWO custody fights, I sure have a horror story.

    And I eventually found out that some of my father’s illicit business associates have day jobs in the government. Yet another reason to be a libertarian.

  35. Jesus, it sounds like the DC passport office has been taken over by the DC government. Yikes.

  36. “This thread makes me wonder something. Does every libertarian have at least one government horror story”

    I’m sure every person, libertarian or not, has government horror stories. And everyone has been hassled by the police for doing something unforgivable like having a beer when your only 20 years old. But they just accept it and wave their little flags because they heard on the news that someone, somewhere, has a rape room.

  37. DMV always has been alright by me, but

    a) never get your car stolen in Memphis. Recovering it from the city’s impound lot is, to say the least, a miserable experience

    b) My wife is from Costa Rica, so we have our own concurrence to offer on the INS. We’ve always joked that it would have been easier and cheaper to swim the Rio Grande than to do it the legal way. And certainly less humiliating.

    But of course, doing any paper in Costa Rica is 10 times more annoying. Doesn’t make our experience here any less wrong.

    Read a nice story in the paper here the other day… A landlord was evicting somebody and received notice that he should show up in court at 10:30 am. He shows up at 10:10, watches the judge finish a case and then leave. After finding out that the judge left and wasn’t just taking a break, he finds out that his case was brought up at 9 and since he wasn’t there his case was dismissed. He has to pay money and time to either appeal or refile the paperwork. The wheels of justice at work…

  38. But of course, doing any paper in Costa Rica

    That’s paperwork, of course.

  39. Well, I have one slightly bureaucracy-busting story. Here in Canada, the universities are all more-or-less government-run, which means horribly stupid bureaucracies. At my alma mater, the U has a site license for a variety of software, which you can sign out for 24 hours so you can make a copy as long as you can prove you’re a student. Returning the copies requires signing the CDs back in and having someone check off your student number.

    Needless to say, the lines for both sign-in and out are always insane, because it’s the same office that handles printing quota sales, computer support, etc, and they only hire one guy to man the counter, and he ignores the software stuff. After waiting at the head of the line for 20 minutes just to hand back a CD, I yelled “Right! Everyone here to return CDs, over here!” hopped over the counter, grabbed the book, and began signing CDs back in. The poor wretch manning the deks didn’t know what to do, but when it became obvious I was doing it right, and properly filing the returned CDs, he left me alone. We were all fifteen of us out of there in less than ten minutes.

    Trying that in a real government office would likely get you shot, of course.

  40. Libertarians bitch about big city government horror. Republicans move to the burbs.

    Or better yet, the country. Unfortunately, it seems a few more people have found out about our little secret of the Hudsonville Secretary of State…

  41. Oh! Really,written style is very nice.

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