The Music of USCIS

by Joseph McKeown


"We wanted something grand, something inspiring, something that said, 'Welcome to America, we're so glad you're here and even though you're waiting on hold, we value you and want to help you.'"

This is a US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) senior manager speaking to me on condition of anonymity over the telephone. He's talking about the original telephone hold music of the USCIS National Customer Service Center. They recently changed their hold music ("One of the toughest calls we’ve made at USCIS," he said) and in honor of their long-running original hold music—which is remembered fondly by many immigration attorneys and paralegals—we wanted to take a look back and commemorate.

"I didn't pick it myself," he continues. "But I spoke to my predecessors who were involved initially in this, and also in renewing the contract for the music and deciding to go with the new one, and we definitely touched on why this hold music is so important for our agency. The hold music was and is an essential part of our branding. We want an open, inclusive, user-friendly feel to the customer service number. It is, after all, customer service, so it's incredibly important that we make the caller feel that they're being helped in the best possible way, including when we put them on hold for very long periods of time. I think the original hold music and the new hold music both do this." 

That's all my contact can tell me for now. He has a major government agency to help run after all. But before he hangs up he tells me to get in touch with a woman who also wished to remain anonymous (but let’s call her Tina) who knows more about this strange, beautiful music.

****

Tina has been with USCIS since the time it was known as BCIS and INS. She laughs when I ask her about the original hold music.

"When I first heard that music I knew," she says. "I just knew it was our hold music."

Tina was in charge of helping find the appropriate hold music back in the 1980s.

"I said to myself: 'What does Immigration sound like? What is our unique sound?' That to me was the most important question. And that's the direction we went. We worked very closely with the musician—who I cannot name for legal reasons, his contract doesn't allow it—but I can say he's a somewhat obscure but well regarded musician. We worked closely for months with him. We gave him a case number and had him talk to our representatives, to get a sense of what callers are going to be experiencing when they call. That really was instrumental for him. Getting a sense of what it's like to be an immigrant with questions about their case—often very serious questions since this is their life, you know!—and they want answers. They just want some answers to why their employment authorization renewal has been pending for more than one hundred and twenty days, or why their L-1B was denied, and for the seriousness of those questions and others like it, we need a serious hold music."

"It's interesting, you know, I remember," Tina says. "The musician told me it was one of his more memorable assignments. At the end, when we'd approved it, when the project was over he called me up and said, Tina, 'I'm enormously proud of that piece.' When I listen to that music I’m reminded of the poem: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. I think of this poem translated to the phone: Give me your calls, your questions waiting to be answered, give me your questions about RFEs, about travel, about that lost Green Card in the mail, that H-1B that's been pending well beyond the processing time. I almost picture it as the Statue of Liberty writing that song.  That was partly our inspiration. What kind of hold music would the Statue of Liberty write?"

****

After I talk to Tina I started thinking about this musician. What other music had he done? Was he exclusively devoted to the genre of hold music? Maybe he's the one who did this music? Both my contacts had spoken of him in reverential tones, as if he was a mystic or a guru. I wanted to meet him. How could I find him?

****

It’s a cold March day. I got away from the office in the midst of H-1B cap season, flew up to Burlington, Vermont, rented a car, and drove about an hour away to the home of a man named Henry Carter. Okay, that isn't his name. He's asked me to not reveal it, because he values his privacy. Henry is the creator of the original USCIS hold music. To find Henry I played the music to a musician friend who sometimes dabbles in commercial and corporate music work amid his sporadic paying gigs as a keyboardist for an indie band. He listened to it a few times. "This is good stuff," is all he would say. He put me in touch with his friend Mike, who put me in touch with his friend Gunther, who, no joke, told me to call his friend Sven. It was Sven who provided the answer.

"It's a classic Henry Carter," Sven said. "Classic Carter. It has all the hallmarks of his work. The tonal structure, the emotion, the cadence, the pacing...yeah, it's a Carter, no question. Is this new? I thought he gave up corporate work."

So that's why I’m in Vermont in subzero temperatures in front of a farm house, which doubles as Henry Carter’s recording studio. I knock. He answers. Despite his apparent bleak and lonely surroundings and music which many might possibly interpret as a desperate cry for help, Henry is a boisterous personality. He is a friendly man whose only real love in life is his music: esoteric renderings of birdsong with long plaintive guitar howls filled with intermittent sounds of axes splitting wood. He did some well-known commercial work early on in his career, but now just focuses on his own music, which he releases under his own label. His day job? He's a part-time H-1B adjudicator at the Vermont Service Center.

"I first started working there because I needed a job where I could just go there, do my thing, bam, and come home and work on my music. Not the corporate stuff but just my own music. It’s a great job, they’re somewhat flexible with my hours. A long time ago when I first started my supervisor was a woman who rose very quickly up the ranks and got transferred to Washington DC, but she knew I was a musician and one day she called me and said, 'Henry, I need some hold music.' I liked the challenge of it. Being on hold is so tedious, so boring. How do I make that experience come alive? How do I make that person say, 'I'm on hold, I have no idea when someone will pick up my call, but that's okay'? That was the challenge for me."

Did he think he succeeded, I ask.

"Yeah, I think so," Henry says. "I listened to the music again before you arrived. Hadn't listened to it for, I don't know, twenty years, is that right? There's a kind of stillness to it that I like, some repetitiveness that seems appropriate for someone on hold. And a somber droning in line with the seriousness of the call.  I love that melody. I think about that melody at night. There's nothing out here but stillness and quiet and at night when I'm in bed I wake up in the middle of the night and I hear that melody. I think I heard it first in a dream. I don't know whether it was a nightmare or not but it was in a dream. Might have been a nightmare, maybe."

He hummed the music for me. Doo-do-do-doo-do-do-doo-do-do-doo.

"We get beauty from the strangest places," Henry says. "The weirdest places, there's beauty. Doesn't matter if it's on hold on a phone with Immigration. You could be in Kansas. Doesn't matter where you are making that call. You’re just sitting, giving up valuable time during your day and you’re listening to that music. There's still beauty to be found there.”