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House of Dreams

The regional center at 16th and Callowhill is a gateway to the U.S. for thousands.

New citizens pledge allegiance at 1600 Callowhill St. From left are Ahmed Elissaoui, from Morocco, and Antonio Procope, from Italy. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
New citizens pledge allegiance at 1600 Callowhill St. From left are Ahmed Elissaoui, from Morocco, and Antonio Procope, from Italy. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

Bitten by winter wind, baked by summer sun, the impromptu parade of nations inches down 16th Street toward the door to thousands of dearly held dreams, and some bad endings.

There are men in turbans, Irish flat caps, and berets, women in rainbow saris and African gele head ties. Their faces are white, black, and every hue between. Many clutch documents, skimming them again and again on the plodding approach to the entryway metal detector.

This is 1600 Callowhill St., Philadelphia - the address that binds a dizzyingly diverse and increasingly populous universe of at least three-quarter million immigrants in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia. Here, at the District 5 regional office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal government decides who may live legally in America, under what conditions and for how long, and who must go home.

It is a task growing ever more gargantuan in the shadow of the national fistfight over immigration reform.

In the 1980s, an average of 6,500 immigrants a year became U.S. citizens through the regional office, small enough to fit into the basement of the federal courthouse in Center City until 1990. In the past year, nearly three times as many have been minted in the boxy, six-story brick building in Franklintown, a former factory where newcomers made tools for Baldwin Locomotive a century ago.

For a snapshot of immigrant aspiration and angst in this century, pick a day. On this one, the line to the front door includes a 20-year-old Nigerian, here to take his citizenship test before deploying to Afghanistan. A Romanian housekeeper of 50 who must convince an examiner that she married for love, not a green card. A moon-faced Italian chef, age 40, who for his swearing-in declares his allegiance with a stars-and-stripes tie. An 88-year-old Pakistani grandfather who likewise is to become a citizen, surrounded by proud family, never imagining how fate will intervene.

District 5 does not teem with immigrants as do some of the other 25 USCIS districts, the most strained being in the South and West. With satellite centers in Pittsburgh, Dover, and Charleston and an $11.4 million budget, it turned out 17,000 new Americans last year, out of 750,000 nationwide, and issued about 6,000 of the 1.1 million green cards.

Also at 1600 Callowhill, on a floor just above the hoopla of twice-a-week swearing-in ceremonies, law enforcement nets are cast for deportation.

District 5 - home to an estimated 185,000 illegal immigrants - expelled a record-breaking 6,629 last year, up from 2,501 in 2001. Nationwide, deportations more than doubled, from 189,026 to 393,289.

More than just the legacy of 9/11, the surge reflects a crackdown that has accelerated under the Obama administration. It has been seen generally as a sop to anti-immigration forces while the president jockeys for reforms such as the Dream Act, which died Saturday in the Senate. It would have given legal status to 700,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

Next year, as Congress trends Republican, proposals to relax immigration rules will likely be nonstarters, even if the debate - already at fever pitch for a few years - gets louder.

But the polemics of Washington are just a low, distant hum to the staff at 1600 Callowhill.

Because right outside, the line keeps forming.

Waiting their turn

In a second-floor alcove with neat rows of blue vinyl seats, 16 immigrants wait their turn to take citizenship tests on English usage and American civics. More than 125 will follow.

From the walls, George Washington and the signers of the Declaration of Independence keep watch as Ismaila Adekunle nervously crams, studying a printout of 100 questions and answers from the USCIS website. The examiner will randomly pick 10. If Adekunle gets six right - and about 92 percent of immigrants do - he will be sworn in within a few weeks. If not, he can try again in 60 days.

But time suddenly is of the essence for the 20-year-old Nigerian, dressed for war in desert camouflage and combat boots.

Born in Lagos, Adekunle was 3 when his father, Bunyamin, an airline clerk, and his mother, Deborah, immigrated to America for the classic reason: a better life. He was raised near Broad Street and Olney Avenue in North Philadelphia, went to public schools, and last year enrolled at Lincoln University. He also, like older brother Ganiyu, joined the U.S. Army Reserve - "to show my appreciation," he says, "to play my part."

His unit is set to deploy to Afghanistan next year. He wants to go to war as a citizen, he says, to cement the bond with his "battle buddies."

But there are other benefits to be reaped. While legal immigrants are welcome in the U.S. military - there are an estimated 45,000 across all branches - only citizens can become officers. Adekunle also would be eligible for federal student loans.

His parents preceded him on the journey to naturalization in 2008, and now they sit with him, wishing him luck when immigration services officer Gail Burroughs summons him.

Adekunle must swear to tell the truth, turn over a passel of identification and his Nigerian passport, and answer some pro-forma questions. They range from the quaint "Ever been a member of the Communist party?" to "Are you willing to defend the United States in an emergency?"

The young soldier's response to the latter is to look down at his uniform and smile.

Civics proves a tougher challenge. Burroughs fires off the questions:

"What does the president's cabinet do?"

Adekunle is stumped.

"OK, we'll come back to that," she says. "How many judges on the Supreme Court?"


"What did the Declaration of Independence do?"

"Freed the United States from Great Britain."

"How many years does a United States senator serve?"

Again, Adekunle draws a blank. He purses his lips.

Burroughs moves on. "Who leads the United States if the president and vice president can't serve?"

"The House speaker."

"Name a branch of government."


"When do we celebrate Independence Day?"

"July Fourth."

"Name the war between the North and the South."

"The Civil War."

It is his sixth correct answer. Finally, Burroughs is smiling.

Next comes English usage. Adekunle clearly reads aloud the sentence: "What is the capital of the United States?"

He legibly writes: "Mexico is south of the United States."

"Congratulations! You have passed," Burroughs declares.

A beaming Adekunle looks like he wants to hug her, but doesn't.

Back in the alcove waiting area with his parents, he calls his Uncle Mufutau, also a naturalized citizen. In Yoruba, their tribal tongue, he tells him the good news.

Marrying: A fast track

Marrying a U.S. citizen is a fast track to living legally ever after in America.

The immigrant spouse can more readily get a green card and then is required to have it for only three years, instead of the standard five, before applying for citizenship. The break can be a reward for love and family values, or an opportunity to game the system.

If prosecuted to conviction, phony marriages and other visa frauds are punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

It's up to USCIS interviewers such as Lucy Noel to outwit the fakers.

An immigration officer for seven years, she handles an average of seven cases a day, not all of them marriages, but all familial. It could be a naturalized citizen's immigrant nephew posing as a son to get benefits. Or a friend claiming to be a blood relative.

On this day, in a third-floor office overlooking the Vine Street Expressway, she has in front of her Mariana Cristache, 50, newly wed to Constantin Cristache, 58, a citizen since May.

Mariana has lived illegally in the United States since leaving Romania on a three-month tourist visa in 2004. But in a nation where at least 11 million immigrants are undocumented, cases such as hers are seldom high-priority targets for agents, to say the least.

Now, she is coming forward to apply for a marriage-expedited green card - with quite a romantic tale to tell.

It goes back 30 years to Bucharest, where she and Constantin worked together in a restaurant, both married to other people. In 1990, he left for the United States, but they stayed in touch and began seeing each other after she arrived.

Three years ago, they moved into a house together in Lackawanna County, though now they spend only weekends there. In January, through an employment agency, they got jobs as housekeeper and chef at a New York brownstone mansion owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar.

In July, they married.

The Cristaches show up at 1600 Callowhill with their friend Mike Standish - born Serban Stancescu in Romania - who will translate for Mariana. Although she understands quite a bit of English, she sometimes hesitates when speaking.

"You just translate," Noel warns Standish. "Don't tell her what to say."

The officer turns her attention to the bride.

"How did he propose?"

"We were at home, and he gave me a ring," Mariana said.

"That's a beautiful ring. Did he surprise you with it?"


"And it fit just perfectly like that?"


After looking at a few of the couple's wedding photos, Noel asks Constantin, "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

He begins to answer "yes," but Noel stops him. She quickly turns to Mariana for the name and address of Constantin's brother.

"George," she says. "In Bucharest."

The game of gotcha goes on nearly an hour. Were she to catch a whiff of fakery, Noel could separate the two for questioning. She could refer the case to a fraud investigator. But she sees no need.

A month after Mariana's application is approved, her green card should arrive in the mail, Noel tells them.

"Good luck," she says in parting. "You have a very nice story. Thirty years. That's a long time."

Ferreting out fakers

The sixth-floor Fraud Detection and National Security Unit is small and quiet, the antithesis of the bustle on lower floors where staff and immigrants intersect.

Here, in relative seclusion, Michale Horn leads six investigators in ferreting out those who scam the system - typically for green cards and work permits - and those with far more nefarious deeds in mind.

Most of their cases are the mundane frauds. But there is no denying, 9/11 upped the stakes in the office.

In 2003, in a major government reorganization impelled by the attacks, federal immigration services and law enforcement were subsumed by the new Department of Homeland Security.

Since then, as foreign-hatched plots have surged, so have the unit's national security responsibilities.

It is here, for example, that investigators mine databases for immigrants who are known members of the 47 groups that the State Department defines as "designated terrorist organizations."

Whether a case of benefit fraud or a suspected threat against the country, the unit exchanges fingerprints and other data with intelligence agencies to vet immigrants whose applications for legal status have been flagged.

Sometimes, Horn says, tips alleging crimes or terrorist ties come in the mail. Other times, as on this day, cases percolate up from the interview rooms below.

Horn parts with details sparingly:

A "man from South America" applied for a green card, and managed to raise an examiner's suspicions. When Horn looks for a fingerprint match in a criminal database, he pops up as a convicted burglar.

"Your fingerprints aren't going to lie," Horn says. "He appears to be removable."

She sends the case to Immigration and Customs Enforcement - the immigration police unit known as ICE - for his arrest and deportation.

End of the journey

The end of a fifth-floor hallway has been the end of the American journey for legions of immigrants.

There, two large cells - one for women, one for men, with a capacity of a dozen people each - await those whose crimes have caught up with them.

On this day at ICE headquarters, each cell holds a single prisoner, barely visible through the small windows in the solid steel doors. Exactly why they are there, agents decline to say.

If they are already under an immigration judge's "final order of removal," they will be transferred to jails in York or Pike Counties, and from there deported.

At least half a dozen Cambodian immigrants in Philadelphia fit that bill and were arrested recently. Several are already back in Cambodia.

The highest priority for ICE, officials say, is the expulsion of immigrants convicted of felonies. Some are in local jails. Others have served time and are back on the street. To round them up, ICE uses an undisclosed number of officers paired as "fugitive teams."

At a noon meeting around a gray conference table, field office director Thomas Decker confers with assistant director Dave O'Neill about one of the day's targets: "a Dominican female" convicted of cocaine possession in 1991. A team is on her trail in North Philadelphia.

Sometime after her conviction, the woman leaves the United States, only to reenter illegally a few years later. Apparently thinking she can get away with it, she files for a green card, using either her own name or an alias. Her criminal history is revealed in the green-card interview and subsequent investigation. She is ordered deported in 2005.

On this day, the fugitive team does not find her. But knowing her haunts, the agents are confident they will.

Once in a lifetime

It happens once in a lifetime, every Wednesday and Friday afternoon.

The large reception room on the fourth floor can comfortably hold the 137 immigrants about to be sworn in as citizens this day - but not the more than 150 relatives and friends who have come along to witness a moment that has been years in the dreaming. Every folding chair is spoken for and the aisles are packed.

English mingles with a Rosetta Stone catalogue of languages in a happy buzz.

Twenty-five years ago, the immigrants naturalized in District 5 were predominantly Vietnamese and Filipino. Now, the largest number of them are Indian, like Indrani Ray-Mukherji, 37, who was born in Calcutta, came to America in 2004, found work as an Amtrak sales agent, and now lives in Northeast Philadelphia.

Of the 17,000 naturalizations last year, more than half were for people between the ages of 25 and 44. Fewer than 300 were unemployed. About 2,100 held management or professional positions.

Citizenship ceremonies surely help the novelty industry stay afloat, judging from the presence of red-white-and-blue stripes and starry speckles.

In the front row, Antonio Procope, 40, a chef at Café Napoli in Wilmington, glows above his Old Glory necktie. Here to cheer him on are his U.S.-born wife, Christine, and their four U.S.-born children. It has been 18 years since Procope left Italy, but this, he says, "just seemed like the right time."

So it also might have seemed to an 88-year-old Pakistani man, likewise surrounded by family. But just before the ceremony is to begin, he collapses.

The reception room is cleared for paramedics, who soon are rushing him on a gurney through the lobby to a waiting ambulance.

With that, the crowd is ushered back in.

From the front row, an African immigrant in a three-piece suit pipes up loudly, "Did he live?"

District Director Karen FitzGerald answered that the details were still unfolding - knowing full well he was dead. The elderly man, whose identity USCIS did not disclose, had suffered a fatal heart attack mere minutes from being sworn in. There would be no posthumous citizenship, either, to ease his family's grief. The honor is only for active-duty soldiers.

Spared the burden of bad news, the group bounds to its feet for the national anthem, followed by the Oath of Allegiance. To a cacophony of cheers, naturalization certificates are handed out. But hold the kisses. Still to come is a short video narrated by President Obama, who intones, "This is now officially your country."

The hour-long ceremony ends with a recording of country singer Lee Greenwood: "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free . . . there ain't no doubt, I love this land, God bless the U.S.A."

In the hall outside the reception room, volunteers help the new citizens register to vote.

Ray-Mukherji is one of the first to sign up. Her husband, Chandra Mukherji, who left India as a child and became a citizen in 1991, teases her for going about it with such solemnity.

But she has her reasons, she says. "I feel some responsibility for the country now."


Dream Act immigration bill falls short in the Senate. A4.