In Communication and the Quest for Information I noted that I learned two important lessons in my work on the Nogales US / Mexico border. This post illustrates the first: Imposed Rulesets Define Human Interaction.
This rule sounds all academic but the real point is that the more pressure you apply to people, the less they will communicate and the more they will react to the rules. Despite what you might think, most people who work for US Customs and Immigration are wonderful people. They didn't join to be jerks and it kills them to have be jerks.
They are reacting to imposed rulesets that force them to behave in a very weird and unnatural way. They have two equally weighted mandates:
The US is a melting pot, bring us your cold, your tired, your hungry…
Foreigners are terrorists after our jobs.
Their response to this is to try to do both. Insodoing, they become the dreaded genie in a bottle - who will give you only and exactly what you ask for.
Overlay this on a system that never throws away a form, but is constantly inventing new ones - and you have a recipe for dysfunction.
When we went to bring Vivian over the border from Canada, we went to the US consulate in Vancouver. After getting around the really long line (which is another story), we ended up at a window with a tired looking woman to help us. The conversation went something like this:
Jim: Hi, we're here to get a K-1 Finance Visa, could we get the necessary forms and instructions?
Woman: Yes, here you are. (she hands us some forms)
Jim: Thanks! Are there any other forms that could expedite the processing?
Woman: Yes, here you go. (more forms)
Jim: Excellent, are there any forms you haven't given me that agencies might require for supplemental information?
Woman: (smiling now) Yes sir, let me go get those.
Vivian: What the hell are you badgering her for?!
(Woman comes back with more forms)
Woman: Here you are, sir.
Jim: Oh, this is fantastic. Now are there any forms that these forms might refer to ….
Woman: (already handing me the forms) Somehow I knew you were going to ask. (Laughs)
Jim: (smiles) So this is all of it then.
Woman: Yes, yes it is.
Fast forward several months into the future, Jim and Vivian are at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington.
Border INS agent: (after showing our package to everyone in the office) This is the only complete package I've ever seen.
So there's two parts to this story. First, by system design, the woman we spoke to at the consulate could not give us the full package we needed for immigration. She was obviously relieved when I was able to negotiate the maze of gibberish necessary to adequately answer what should have been a simple question. She hated not being able to help us and relished in, for once, being able to just do her job.
The second is that INS's lack of communication filters pain through the entire system. From the woman at the consulate, to the processing centers, to the final border crossing. The Border INS agent reacted as if our package (not us mind you) was surely a sign of the second coming. It was bureaucratic rapture.
So the rules imposed on INS defined their communication, much more than professionalism or their own desires.
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