After waiting 2 1/2 hours, my client was finally called for her green card interview.
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We headed to the hallway door to meet the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. I extended my right hand to greet the officer and introduce myself. He turned and walked away. With his back to us, he said, “Follow me.”

My client’s face turned colorless. Fear ran up and down her spine. I whispered, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.”

I again extended my right hand as we entered the officer’s room. He looked at me and said,”We do not shake hands with immigrants seeking benefits.”

“Really,” I asked, “is that a written policy?”

He ignored the question.

Maybe I’m too old-fashioned. As I was growing up, my mother taught me to always shake hands.

President Obama has indicated he wants to implement changes to government bureaucracy. I suggest starting with improved customer relations training for immigration office employees.

A Culture of Rudeness

The attitude displayed by the USCIS officer is not an isolated incident. In my experience, too many immigration offices are infected with a culture of rudeness. Not all, but too many.

  • Filing window clerks who fling papers at clients and attorneys rather than respond to simple inquiries about procedures or forms
  • Security guards who treat visitors as if they are enemy terrorist suspects
  • Detention officers who place callers on hold for 20 minutes before asking the callers about their names or reasons for calling
  • Immigration judges who act like having tantrums on the bench is a form of judicial discretion

Government lawyers are not exempt from this epidemic.

Having been an immigration trial attorney in Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego for over 16 years, as I’ve walked into immigration court, I offer to shake hands with opposing counsel. Most return my gesture. Yet, some appear shocked. They stare incredulously at me . . . as if I am doing something foreign to legal etiquette.

And unfortunately, this handshake is sometimes the end of civility. More often than I care to remember, I’ve needed to remind opposing counsel it is not necessary to personalize our legal dispute or vilify my immigration client.

A Lesson From Basketball

Like President Obama, I played a lot of basketball as a young man.

I remember many intense games at a church playground with a dangling chain-link basket. We would try our hardest to beat each other. Afterward, we would head to a small neighborhood grocery store. We would put our money together to buy and share twinkies and chocolate milk. Despite the furious competition just minutes earlier, there was rarely lingering animosity.

I learned an invaluable lesson from those basketball games — a lesson it appears our president has also learned.

Mere opposition does not justify belligerence.

This lesson guides my interaction with those on the other side when I represent clients.

Even though my clients are immigrants from foreign countries, the rude, and often mean-spirited, attitude displayed at many immigration offices is inappropriate. Government employees are public servants, and role models for the public they serve.

I am not alone in my position. As the Institute for Civility in Government notes, if government will not model civic responsibility, how can we expect others in society to be any different?

Just ask Kayne West, Serena Williams, or Joe Wilson.

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