Bryson's America: Gamblers, hijackers and polygamists: keep out

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I'M NOT even going to begin to tell you about the frustration of trying to get a foreign-born spouse or other loved one registered as a legal resident in the United States because I haven't space and, anyway, it is much too boring. Also, I can't talk about it without weeping copiously. Also, you would think I was making most of it up.

You would scoff, l am quite sure, if I told you that an acquaintance of ours - an academic of high standing - sat open-mouthed while his daughter was asked such questions as "Have you ever engaged in any unlawful commercial vice, including, but not limited to, illegal gambling?" and "Have you ever been a member of, or in any way affiliated with, the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party?" and - my particular favourite - "Do you plan to practise polygamy in the US?" His daughter, I should point out, was five years old.

You see, I am weeping already.

There is something seriously wrong with a country that asks such questions of any person, not simply because the questions are intrusive and irrelevant, and not because enquiries into one's political affinities fly in the face of the American Constitution, but because they are such a monumental waste of everyone's time. Who, after all, when asked if he intends to engage in genocide, espionage, hijacking, multiple marriages or any other of an extremely long and interestingly paranoid list of undesirable activities, is going to say: "I certainly do! Say, will this harm my chances of getting in?"

If all that was involved was answering a list of pointless questions under oath, then I would just sigh and let it be. But it is infinitely more than that. Acquiring legal status in America involves fingerprints, medical examinations, blood tests, letters of affidavit, birth and marriage certificates, employment records, proof of financial standing, and much else - and all of it must be assembled, validated, presented and paid for in very specific ways. My wife recently had to make a 250-mile round trip to give a blood sample at a clinic recognised by the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service, even though one of the finest teaching hospitals in America is here where we live.

There are endless forms to fill in, each with pages of instructions, which often contradict other instructions and almost always lead to the need for more forms. Here is a typical fragment of instructions regarding the presentation of fingerprints: "Submit a complete set of fingerprints on Form FD-258... Complete the information on the top of the chart and write your A no (if any) in the space marked `Your no OCA' or `Miscellaneous no MNU'."

If you don't have form FD-258 (and you don't) or aren't sure which is your MNU number (and you aren't), you can spend days repeatedly dialling a phone number that is forever engaged, only to be told when you finally do get through that you must call another number, which the person tells you once in a mumble and you don't quite catch before you are cut off. It is like this with every encounter you have with every branch of the American government. After a while you begin to understand why flinty- eyed cowpokes in places like Montana turn their ranches into fortresses and threaten to shoot any government officer fool enough to walk into the cross-hairs.

And it's no good just filling in the forms to the best of your ability because if anything is even a tiny bit out of order, it is all sent back. My wife had her file returned because the distance between her chin and hairline on a passport-sized photograph was out by one-eighth of an inch.

This has been going on for two years. Understand, my wife does not want to practise brain surgery, engage in espionage, assist or collude in the trafficking of drugs, or participate in the overthrow of the American government (though frankly I would not stand in her way). She just wants to do a little shopping and be legally resident. Doesn't seem too much to ask.

Goodness knows what the hold-up is. Occasionally we get a request for some additional document. Every few months I write to ask what is happening, but I never get a response. Three weeks ago we received a letter from the INS office in London, which we thought must be the official approval at last. Good joke! It was a computer-generated letter saying that because her application had been inactive for 12 months it was being cancelled.

All this is a very roundabout way of getting to a story concerning some British friends of ours here in Hanover. The husband is a professor at the local university, and has been for some years. Eighteen months ago, he and his family went back to England for a year's sabbatical. When they arrived at Heathrow, excited to be home, the immigration officer asked them how long they were staying.

"A year," my friend answered brightly.

"And what about the American child?" the officer asked with a cocked eyebrow.

Their youngest had been born in America, and they had never registered him as British. He was only four, so it wasn't as if he would be looking for work or anything. The immigration man listened gravely, then went off to consult a supervisor.

It had been eight years since my friends had left Britain, and they weren't sure just how much more like America it might have grown in that period. So they waited uneasily. After a minute the immigration man returned, followed by his supervisor, and said to them in a low voice, "My supervisor is going to ask you how long you intend to stay in Britain. Say two weeks."

So the supervisor asked them how long they intended to stay, and they said two weeks.

"Good," said the supervisor, then added as if by way of afterthought, "It might be an idea to register your child as British within the next day or two, in case you should decide to extend your stay."

"Of course," said my friend.

And they were in. And that is why I love Britain. That and the pubs and Branston pickle and country churchyards and a great deal else, but mostly because you still have a public service that is capable of genuine humanity and doesn't act as if it loathes you.

And on that note, I am going to go off and stock up on ammo.

`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, pounds 16.99) can be purchased at major bookshops or by mail order on 01624 675137