[Originally authored 26 April 2012]
The first installment in this series of blog posts focused on the way in which border maintenance is being outsourced to private companies. Here, I focus on another form of ‘messiness’ in constructing borders: the outsourcing of border maintenance to other countries.
When you apply for a UK visa from the US, at the end of the online application process you are told that to complete your application you must make an appointment to go to your local US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Application Support Center to get your biometrics recorded. So, after a fitful night of jetlag-induced sleep, I woke up this morning to dutifully keep my 12:00 appointment at my local Application Support Center.
The Application Support Centers (ASCs) are run by DHS’ Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). A rough scan suggests that there are around 150 ASCs in the country. These are the offices that primarily exist to gather biometrics on potential immigrants to the US, but the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has contracted with DHS to gather this information for potential immigrants to Britain as well. So far as I know, the UK is the only nation that contracts with the US government to gather biometric data on potential visa applicants, although I don’t know this for a fact. Of course, national intelligence agencies (especially among “friendly” nations) cooperate all the time; here, however, the cooperation is preemptive.
As this photo of my local ASC makes clear, the ASCs are hidden in plain sight. For someone looking for an ASC (i.e., someone like me who has received an appointment time and address), the large sign makes the Center easy to find. For anyone else, though, it is unclear from both the name and the signage just what goes on in this building. DHS and USCIS logos don’t appear until you’re well inside the outer door. The lettering on the right side of the door (which you can just barely make out in this photo….photography was tricky since I didn’t want to attract attention to myself) says ‘Application Support Center / Business Hours’ and then lists the hours. The list of prohibited activities on the left side (‘ATTENTION; No Food; No Drink; No Smoking; No Cameras; No Weapons; No Soliciting; No Cellphone Usage’) certainly implies that this is some sort of government building, but no further indication is given regarding its purpose.
When I passed through the doors of the building and through another door, I came upon a reception desk, at which I presented my appointment letter. The person at the desk reviewed my appointment letter, gave me a number, and assigned me to sit in a waiting area. Adding another layer to outsourcing, this person staffing the desk was not a US Government employee but the employee of a private security firm (he wore the private security firm’s uniform). So, I was dealing with an employee of a contracted private company that was working under contract for a country (the US) that itself was contracted by the country to which I was seeking immigration (the UK) in a process coordinated by another contracted company (CSC). At times it felt more like I was navigating through an institutional maze than crossing a clearly defined, unambiguous border that says “UK sovereignty begins here.”
Looking around the waiting room, I felt a bit sheepish. Here I was seeking qualifications to leave the US while I was surrounded by would-be immigrants who were clearly (and in some cases with obvious pride) seeking to enter the US. It reminded me how complicated feelings of citizenship and identity are, and how we feel such strong connections for something that, so often, is nonetheless thrust upon us, whether by birth or opportunity (or lack thereof). Closer to home, it made me think of the bittersweet feelings that I know my mother — by no means a knee-jerk patriot, but still a proud immigrant — would have if I ever were to take up British citizenship. Some of this would be due to the psychological sense of distance provided by ocean-space (psychological, because in fact it takes me no longer to get to New York from London than it does from my “regular” home in Tallahassee, Florida) but some would also be due to a sense that I was undoing (critiquing?) the liberatory journey taken by her and her parents as they fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.
After being called to the back, getting my photo taken (‘You can smile, but no teeth’, the immigration officer said), and going through a surprisingly painstaking (and at times even slightly painful) process of fingerprinting, I was in for another surprise when I was given not one but two customer satisfaction surveys: one from the USCIS and one from the UKBA. This was surreal: I really had no expectations of being treated particularly courteously by people who were just doing their jobs, and it wasn’t like I had an option of going to a competitor if I wasn’t satisfied with the treatment I had received. Clearly, someone somewhere had decided that ‘customer satisfaction’ should be measured, probably so that they could justify renewing contracts. I can imagine the report being written by a UKBA official justifying renewal of the contract with USCIS: “Over 80% of visa applicants found Department of Homeland Security staff to be ‘very helpful’ or ‘helpful’. This indicates that USCIS is an effective service deliverer and therefore there is no reason not to renew the contract.”
The USCIS survey had to be submitted right there, so I wasn’t able to photograph it (no cameras or phones were allowed inside the ASC), but I photographed the UKBA’s customer satisfaction survey before filling it out and — as instructed — placing in the envelope with my completed application and supporting documents.
With that done, I went to my local post office, put all the documents shown in my previous post into an Express Mail envelope (including my freshly-stamped biometric appointment sheet), added the customer satisfaction survey (I’m happy to report that the people at the ASC were indeed quite courteous), and sent it off to the consulate. Now all that’s left to do is wait.
Stay tuned for the next installment in the Border Crossing series when I hear from the UKBA about my visa application’s progress.
— Phil S.