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The INS’ Atlanta District Office plays coy when people ask for its internal phone numbers. In January, the office changed the numbers for its naturalization and green card offices, and then kept the new numbers secret. Immigration and Naturalization Service Assistant District Director for Examinations Dwight S. Faulkner says the agency’s clerks are too busy with paperwork to answer the phone and soothe the nerves of anxious applicants. But Atlanta immigration lawyer Charles H. Kuck says the change effectively cuts applicants off from information about the status of their green card and citizenship applications. On April 13, he filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, asking the INS to release the telephone numbers. The agency refused. Kuck says he’s prepared to place the issue in front of a federal judge. “Their reason for cutting off the numbers is, ‘We’re too busy to answer our phones,’” Kuck says. “Well I am ,too, but I can’t use that excuse. Simply to cut off contact is unacceptable.” The agency denied his request under exemption 5 USC 552 (b)(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the agency to keep secret “materials related solely to the internal rules and practices of INS.” Faulkner says he has a practical reason for not releasing the numbers and names of the clerks in the naturalization and green card office. The Atlanta district office has a backlog of 16,337 applications for green cards, some going back to December 1997. “If we didn’t get another green card application today we would still have three years of work to do,” he says. The green card office is supposed to have four clerks, Faulkner says. But one of the clerks just left, and another is on extended medical leave. “If I give Mr. Kuck those phone numbers then I’ll have one clerk doing nothing but answering the phones,” he says. Even if by some miracle his office were granted more clerks, he says, he still would decline to release the numbers unless someone orders him to. There’s just too much to do. “I don’t want to have staff to answer the phones,” he says. “I want to have staff to clear up the backlog.” The long wait for what the INS calls “adjustment of status” is part of the reason Kuck is frustrated about the lack of contact with the agency’s examiners. Some of his clients pay about $1,500 for citizenship and residency applications, he says. They deserve some attention. “Nobody’s calling the examiners to bother them or to sway their opinion,” Kuck says. “You just need to get somebody’s attention in person in some of these cases.” Faulkner says the agency gives out the numbers for two fax machines, a community relations officer, a public information officer, as well as his direct office line. That should be enough, he says. The INS also has a national 800-number that provides general information about immigration but can’t answer questions about specific cases. Kuck says the 800 lines are not helpful. “You can get a live person — in Texas,” he says. For immigration lawyers living far from downtown Atlanta, lack of phone contact makes their work difficult. Gainesville lawyer Jerry C. Carter Jr. says he can’t just come downtown and corner an official on behalf of his clients. The phone numbers that are available, he says, are little help. “If I had to make an analogy I’d say it would be like calling Siberia,” he says. “They’re just the ultimate bureaucrats.” Eventually, he says, he simply stopped trying to call anyone at the Atlanta office. “It became clear to me that calling was a waste of time,” he says. “Now I send everything by certified mail.” Atlanta immigration lawyer Socheat Chea says his office tries to work within the agency’s rules. “What we try to do in this office is send faxes,” he says. “Sometimes it works.” The real problem is not lack of phone numbers, he says. It’s that Congress would rather allocate resources to detention and deportation and to the naturalization units. That spending makes more political sense than focusing on green card holders, he says. “Really it’s only a symptom of a systemwide problem,” he says. Kuck says the FOIA request has become one of his most useful tools in the absence of direct contact with officials. “FOIAs are great. I use them for everything,” he says. “Want to find out who’s getting deported? Use a FOIA.” After the INS denied his request, Kuck appealed to the Attorney General’s Office of Information and Privacy on May 18. He hasn’t heard back and still doesn’t have the numbers he requested. “They’re certainly outside the time frame,” he says. “The limit is 20 days.” Kuck doesn’t know of any other district that has cut off its phone numbers. It’s only fair, he says, for everyone who wants them to have them — lawyers and nonlawyers. “I’ll put the phone numbers on a billboard outside so everyone can use them,” he says, laughing. INS Community Relations Officer William Castro says widespread dissemination of its phone numbers is exactly what the agency does not want. “The problem is that, once that phone number becomes public knowledge, we get bombarded with calls. And there’s no one free to answer the phones,” he says. Faulkner says he recognizes Kuck’s frustration and shares it to a degree. There’s a lot the agency could improve, he says. “I sympathize with them — I really do,” he says. “I wish we could do a better job.”

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