A funny thing happened when the U.S. government asked for my fingerprints this year.
It was so funny, it reminded of that line in The Wizard of Oz when the Wicked Witch of the West says, “I’m m-e-l-t-i-n-g! M-e-l-t-i-n-g!”
In 11 years in the U.S., I’ve been fingerprinted by the White House (for a press pass); fingerprinted by various federal agencies (for journalism, for work permits); and fingerprinted by police in several states (for work in social services).
I figured this is what it takes to work here. As an immigrant, I know this is what it takes to live here for long.
Prepare to be printed — often
Before graduating from San Francisco State University, I was fingerprinted again by Homeland Security for my Green Card. This was written proof that I’m an alien — non-American friends love this. (At least, I was no longer a foreign alien).
A few years later, I moved to another state, and had to be fingerprinted again for a contract job in yet another state. This time, I was fingerprinted by a private contractor hired by the federal government for a contract to work with veterans.
Apparently, there just wasn’t enough proof of my existence.
(The defense contractor, by the way, lost the contract, and I lost $200 for the FBI-CIA-Homeland Security-RCMP background checks. And that was only for the application — but, I digress …)
I was fingerprinted again this year by Homeland Security for a very important test.
This was the first time I was fingerprinted by a woman — and only the second time anyone taking my fingerprints was friendly about it.
Question: Should anyone smile while taking your fingerprints?
(Think about this: As an immigrant, this can be one of the most frightening moments in your new country, even if you have a clean record. Imagine if you fled a police state, for instance, or a repressive government, or war or persecution. Having the state take one of the most intimate parts of your identity can be, at the every least, unsettling. It would help everyone if people trained to take fingerprints were also trained in putting people at ease. I digress again …)
The official was not only friendly, she knew how to laugh.
Truly, the only other time I’ve encountered anyone who was friendly during fingerprinting was the man at the White House who had to take prints from journalists from all over the world. I sensed that he was a man of good humor, no matter what. (Besides, most of us felt honored then to get our fingerprints taken at the White House. For those of us privileged to be visiting from other countries where we had never been fingerprinted, it was a novelty too.)
This official laughed because she couldn’t get my prints.
Determined not to be frustrated, I joked, “I’m disappearing!”
We tried again, and again, and it was true: I am disappearing.
Why journalism can be dangerous
I knew that fingerprints could be worn away by exposure to chemicals — painters, artists, printers, for instance, face this.
I did not know that I could erase one form of my existence by typing.
It appears that a lifetime of journalism has worn away my whorls.
The official wasn’t surprised; she inquired about how much time I devote to writing. (Far too much; not enough; there is no way to answer this question.)
All of the attempts to get a full set of prints gave us enough time, in a private space, to chat about presidents, about America, about immigrants, about families … in an amiable, non-judgmental, non-confrontational way. We shared a mutual curiosity about the other’s culture and history.
I thought that computerized fingerprinting was the best improvement after almost a decade of being fingerprinted in this country. (Some federal agencies don’t use any of that black ink anymore; police and private contractors still do.)
I discovered it wasn’t the technology, it was the technician: I am grateful to the Oregon woman who took what I hope will be my last set of fingerprints in this country. I am grateful for her kindness in treating me not as an alien, but as a newcomer.
(with gratitude to imdb.com for the quotation:
‘[Dorothy watches the Wicked Witch melt]
Wicked Witch of the West: “You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! melting! Oh, what a world! What a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness? Oooooh, look out! I’m going! Oooooh! Ooooooh!” ‘