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A Firsthand Account Of A Special Registration Experience

by Gregory Siskind

We obtained the following story from a US citizen spouse describing her experiences with her husband at Special Registration. We can only hope that this woman’s experiences are not common.


I am a United States Citizen married to a Moroccan national. We knew about Special Registration and were concerned because my husband is considered an 'overstay' and out-of-status as of September 2002. We just married in December, so we couldn't file our I-130 and I-485 because we did not have our official state-issued marriage license, which these documents require (this can normally take 6-8 weeks). I had paid extra to put a rush on ours, but still, it wouldn't arrive until the second week of January at the earliest. So there was no way we would have our paperwork even pending, before my husband had to go to Special Registration. However, I still felt that there wouldn't be huge problems for us. We had planned for sometime to go to over the holidays to stay with my family. I found out there was an INS office there, and thought that maybe there would be less of a line, and less difficulty than in LA. So, the day after Christmas, we were running around downtown shopping, and I suggested we stop in.

I stopped in around 10 in the morning, and I briefly explained our situation thus: my husband entered this country legally, but he had slightly overstayed his visa while we were waiting to get married. Since we just married, I had not yet filed our paperwork. Also, we came from, and were on holiday, would it be possible to register, and how long did they think it would take. Initially I talked to a security guard, then he brought over an INS worker (don't know of his position, but seemed in charge of the general office functions). He said, no problem. My husband and I entered, there were only about three people in the office, and a lot of empty chairs (big difference from LA). We gave my husband's passport to the INS officer (I presume they made a copy) and gave him my husband's A number. We returned to the chairs. After about an hour, an officer came out and explained that they were going to take one more for registration, then the officer was going to lunch; we should come back at 2pm. I was heartened at this, since they did not seem to waste our time. So we left.

We returned on time; after about a half hour, they called my husband in. They would not let me go with him; my husband's English is okay, but sometimes he can be confused. I was surprised they wouldn't let me come in, given that they'd let the brother of a Persian man who was ahead of us go with his brother. When I asked about this, they said there was translation issues. (But both of these men spoke fine; I'd talked to them myself.) This was my first bad feeling. I waited. While he was in this office, he said what they mostly did was make him wait. They didn't really ask him any questions, except about his passport, and entry into the US. They took his photograph, fingerprints, and asked for all the IDs, credit/bank cards etc. in his wallet, which he gave them. They left to make copies. After about an hour and a half, they wrote something almost illegible in red ink on the page of his passport above his visa (I believe) and gave him information on when to appear next year. After he left, this same officer told us that now he would have to go to investigations, and they would interview us separately. I asked how long it would take, because we had to meet my parents later, they said they didn't know. Two officers led my husband away. I waited.

Two hours or so passed, and I talked with the security guards and other INS workers there (who didn't seem to have much to do). I asked the man who originally let us in for Special Registration about why they were keeping my husband. He said, "Oh we don't know anything about that section. They don't tell us a thing. It's very, secretive. They just came in here, took over some offices. We aren't allowed to interrupt them when they are in there." (This from the same guy who told me it would take an hour.) At around 5pm, the officers got a phone call and then told me that I should go outside to a side door, on another street and that my husband would come out there. I asked when he would come out, the officers didn't know. When I left the building, they locked it behind me. I waited outside that side door (in the cold, downtown, at night, by myself) for four more hours without any information about my husband. I tried to buzz on the security button, and the guards told me they were leaving and that they would check it out. When they came out (around 5:45pm) they said that the officers wouldn't tell them anything. I was frantic, and helpless. It was the worst day of my life. I didn't know if they had already moved him somewhere, or even if he was in the building anymore. A few people came out of the building; I begged them to help me. One man hesitated over my car for almost 10 minutes, debating what to do. Then, he said that it wasn't really his department, so they wouldn't tell him anything anyway.

At INS Investigations

Meanwhile, in the investigations office, the officers kept my husband in a room with video surveillance of the building so he could see me pounding on the door and frantically running around. In some ways this was good, because at least he knew where I was. They never asked him any terrorist-related question. They talked to him for some time about where he entered the country, etc. He had a big binder of all his paper, and other immigration related information as well as personal information. They took this and kept it for about an hour. They tried to get him to sign a paper saying he was deportable. They said he could leave if he signed it, but he wouldn't. They told him they wanted to sign a paper, but they wouldn't tell him what it was, or show it to him. He wouldn't sign it. He said they made him feel scared, an officer with a gun on kept walking around him.

They made him feel like a criminal, and began to be accusatory. They said our marriage was fraud (though we've been together about a year and a half, and have lived together since March). He asked them what would make them think this. They didn't answer. They said he was going to run away. He asked why would I do that when my wife and life is here? He told them that he did have a plane reservation, in case the INS would require him to leave; he would do so of his own accord. He emphasized that he came in willingly, but they didn't seem to care. They never asked any question that was related to terrorism in anyway. They were completely focused on his alleged immigration violation, overstaying his visa. At one point, my husband asked if he or they could tell his wife where he was, and when he was coming out. They said no, they didn't have to do that. Later, one of the officers even asked if he could go down and at least tell me that he was still in the building. His superior told him no, that I could just wait.

Later, they said that they were going to keep his passport because "I don't want to see you back here in a few years as a U.S. citizen." This to me is most interesting because this officer (Officer John Smith [name changed]) has to have known that under Section 245, most overstays who marry US citizens are still eligible to adjust status if they entered this country legally. So he had to have known that my husband would eventually become a legal permanent resident.

My husband has no criminal record in either his country or ours. He had no involvement with anything which might be terrorist-related here; hence, there are no 'hits' on any checks they did. During their checks, they must have found this, because at one point, my husband overheard one of the officers say, "there just isn't anything” and "what do we have to charge him with".  Finally, around 8pm they began to type up a NTA (Notice to Appear, the first step in removal proceedings). As they were doing this, they kept correcting each other on what they could really charge him with (it essentially says he overstayed his visa). Around this time, one of the officers (who my husband thinks sort of felt sorry for him, because he kept looking at me on the camera, sympathetically) slipped out of the room and came down to where I was waiting. He told me that my husband would be coming out, but he couldn't say when. I begged him to give me some indication, then he said, "maybe in an hour." Then he went back inside.

Finally at around 9 pm, my husband came out. I was crying, and he felt very sick. He couldn't eat for two days after this experience. He told me he was courteous and calm, but very scared. Apparently they had lists of questions to ask him, but when he wouldn't sign a paper saying he would agree to sign the sheet and answer them without first knowing what they were, they got mad took it away. As I said earlier, they tried to get him to sign a paper saying he was deportable; they had even checked this box for him, and told him to sign. When they realized he could read it, they took it away. Later, they came back with the same paper, but that answer had been liquid-papered out, and they told him to sign that he believed he had a right to be here and would go to court to prove it (you can see were they changed the answer on our copy of this document). They also kept his passport and work permit.

I was especially mad about them keeping his passport. We had to fly home and I worried that someone would stop him and ask for it (he does have a driver's license, but still, they always tell Americans traveling abroad to protect your passport). They wouldn't give him any receipt for it. So I decided to go back to the office the next day (without my husband) to see if at least they would give me a receipt.

At the INS in December 2002

When I arrived the security officer recognized me but wouldn't let me pass. I asked to see someone in Investigations.  Someone left to check. When he came back, he said they wouldn't see me; had no business there. I told the officer that I wanted to see Officer Smith then, the one who kept my husband until 9 at night. While this officer was gone, the other officer I talked to said that they wouldn't keep my husband unless he was a criminal who had done something wrong. (Part of the problem of this program is that perception.)  The first officer came back and said Officer Smith wouldn't see me, he was 'too busy'. I told them I had a right to see him and I wouldn't leave until he talked to me. The officer left and a few minutes later Officer Smith came down. He looked really mad. I asked why they had taken the passport, and if they had a right to. He said they could take what they needed. I asked for a receipt for my husband's passport. He wouldn't give me one. He told me the NTA was my receipt. I told him that the NTA doesn't say anywhere on it that they have his passport. He said it didn't need to and he didn't need to give me a receipt. I told him we had to fly home, and needed it if we were stopped. He said, "He has a driver's license doesn't he?" I explained that Americans traveling abroad are told never to go anywhere without their passport. He said that he wasn't American. I said I didn't understand why he couldn't at least give me a receipt. He leaned in and angrily said, "If you want the passport back so badly, why don't you bring your husband back here, we'll throw him in jail and then send him home, and YOU CAN KEEP HIS PASSPORT!"

I asked him, "Are you threatening me sir?" He said that was a fact, and they don't need to give a receipt. Suddenly I just started crying. He made me feel so bad. His eyes were so scary, I thought he was going to come after me. When I started crying, I said, "I don't understand, I've been with my husband for a year and a half, I've lived with him since March, we got married as soon as we could, why are you doing this??" Suddenly he softened a little. He told me, that if we had lived in his jurisdiction, he would have filed our I-130 and I-485 himself. He said he even tried to see if he could. Then I asked why one of the papers he'd given us said my husband was arrested, when we'd come in voluntarily. He said, that was the only paper they had. There wasn't a paper to fit my husband's situation, so they'd given him that. I asked was he arrested then, and he said, well not really. Then I asked, so why was he issued an NTA then? And he said because he was illegally in the United States. I asked him if he was going to forward this to LA, he said yes. I asked when will the trial be. He said he didn't know, that if it was in the state of the INS office, they would have had it right away. Then I thanked him and left.

Ms. X

About The Author

Gregory Siskind is a partner in Siskind, Susser, Haas & Devine's Memphis, Tennessee, office. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Chicago. Mr. Siskind is a member of AILA, a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a member of the ABA, where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman. He is the author of several books, including the J Visa Guidebook and The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. Mr. Siskind practices all areas of immigration law, specializing in immigration matters of the health care and technology industries. He can be reached by email at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.