Uncle Sam’s New Welcome

For Rodolfo Acevedo, the complicated process of becoming a U.S. citizen wasn't pleasant. The various south Florida offices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that he visited were "not very friendly … and not very fit for the function they had to do," he says. Now the Argentine-born Acevedo has a chance to help fix that. He's the lead architect for four new immigration facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that aim to change the face of U.S. immigration—with less bureaucracy and more personality. The buildings, which are scheduled for completion next summer, are part of a $120 million pilot project that could serve as a model for immigration centers nationwide.

Acevedo's blueprints depict settings far different from the current prisonlike complex in Miami, where lines of people snake out onto the scorching sidewalk. The new facilities will have big, comfortable waiting areas, ample light and green design elements like reflective roofing. They'll feature indoor playgrounds for kids and Internet cafés for adults. The décor will be more welcoming—pastel colors, with an entry rotunda modeled on the U.S. Capitol and 25-foot etchings of the Statue of Liberty on glass walls. It's all in a "spirit of courtesy and cooperation," says Mark M. Levin, managing director for South Florida Federal Partners, which will own the buildings and lease them to the government.

The immigration agency could use an image makeover. According to a June ombudsman's report, it continues to be troubled by "pervasive and serious problems," including "lengthy and costly waiting periods for benefits" and "a hodgepodge of disconnected, overlapping and contradictory rules." (A spokesman says the agency is still reviewing the report.) Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House immigration subcommittee, says that while she supports the agency's efforts to become more user-friendly, she's more concerned about what she calls "huge backlogs" of green-card and naturalization applications. The agency spokesman denies there's a "backlog," a term whose definition can vary. Acevedo, who became a citizen two weeks ago, still remembers his headaches. He hopes the journey to America will be more pleasant for those who follow him.