Every day, up to 2,400 people from nearly 200 nations stand in line outside the New York regional headquarters of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Some want to renew their work visas, others need an alien registration certificate. The largest number hope for a so-called 'green card' that will allow them to stay legally in the United States indefinitely.
On the sidewalk outside the Federal Building on Lower Broadway in downtown Manhattan, a line of people snakes around the block, waiting often for more than an hour to clear the security check that will admit them to the INS waiting rooms and offices. Its members represent an impressive cross-section of immigrant America. Every size, shape, skin color and mode of ethnic dress seems to be here. Angela Sergio, an Italian, is dressed in the black, streamlined garb of the fashion conscious Manhattan Bohemian.
Reporter: Why are you here today?
Sergio: I have to go get my paper done so I can get my final green card, my permanent green card.
Reporter: Has it been a long process to get there?
Sergio: Quite a bit, yeah. They are a little behind. There are a lot of people who want to become American citizens or residents. So definitely, I have to wait!
Reporter: So you're waiting for the green card. What does the green card actually permit you… [to do]?
Sergio: To live in this country. Having the green card means I'm going to be a resident of the United States. And that gives me also a chance to become a citizen in the future if I decide to do so.
Reporter: What do you suppose is the attraction? Why do so many people want to come here?
Sergio: To America? It's really the best country in the world. I believe that. It's not only for opportunity. It's just freedom and you can be yourself. There are wonderful people here [and] wonderful places to see.
This middle-aged man is from Argentina. He has been waiting several hours for his form.
Reporter: Is it difficult to get the visas and get all the forms and all that.
Argentine Man: No. If you accomplish the requirements, it's easy.
Reporter: Why do you want to stay here?
Argentine Man: A lot of opportunity. Especially if you compare it with my country; it's a mess at this moment. The economy is bad. But it is not just for work. The lifestyle here is better. I like the freedom. The way to dress, the way to communicate. That kind of freedom. Do you understand?
Sayat, who hales from Pakistan, wears the hair covering of a religious Muslim woman, and the crimson blazer of a baggage checker at an airport security counter. She has stood here many times before today.
"I want to get my green card. I came here many times, but they didn't give me a response. They always say 'very soon you can get your green card,' but I didn't get my green card. I work at JFK, John F. Kennedy Airport. And I want to give [take] another test to get my promotion, but I didn't get my test because I didn't get my green card," he said. Not everyone is seeking money or freedom in America. "Tomoya" came to the United States from Japan 11 years ago.
Reporter: Why did you want to come?
Tomoya: Well, I just wanted to get rid of Tokyo. It could gave been anywhere, but just the first thought that came to my mind was 'Oh New York. Oh, okay! I'm going to New York!' And then I fell in love with my husband, and we got married and that's it.
Reporter: The rest is history, huh? [Laughs] Why do you suppose so many people want to come here [to America]?
Tomoya: Well, I never thought about other people.
But tragedy has brought some people here.
"My name is Kwasi Kuma," says another man, "I'm from Ghana."
Reporter: And why are you here today?
Kwasi: I am a permanent resident. I have just lost a son, and I'm taking him home to bury him. I have two daughters. They want to come with me, but they have lost their green cards. So I am here to find out how they can go and then be able to come back.
Reporter: So it's a sad reason.
Slowly, inexorably, the line advances. In fiscal year 2000, the last year for which statistics are available, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service bestowed immigrant status to 849,000 people by giving them green cards, and almost 900,000 immigrants became United States citizens.