Last year a young Arlington man married a South American student attending school here. At the time no one told the man that he was required to file a petition with the immigration service to enable his wife to stay in this country.
In July, 1976, the man and his new bride, who did not want their names published, took a vacation to visit her family in Colombia, South America. She was not allowed back in the country and neither of them knew why.
In September, after futile attempts to get his wife back to Virginia, the man contacted his congressman, Joseph Fisher (D-Va). The matter was expedited by Fisher's chief caseworker, Carole Gray, and the woman was finally reunited with her husband last January.
"Solving constituents' cases is hard," says Gray. "The most difficult thing is constantly reinforcing the people that you are helping, asking them just to be patient.
"People will look to you as the person who will solve all their problems. They think we have all the answers and we don't."
Gray, who works out of Fisher's Falls Church office, has been a professional case worker for the past eight years. Before coming to work for Fisher two years ago, she worked for a congressman from Indiana who was defeated. She generally knows who to call and where to refer people who come to her with problems.
"Even though I worked for another congressman for so long, I never saw anywhere near the magnitude of cases that come into this office every week," said Gray. "I know the fact that we're local has a lot to do with it. It's a free phone call and a lot of people don't know where else they can turn."
"A lot of the work is routine and some times we just have to refer the person to the right agency," explained Gray. "One phone call from a constituent can generate 15 or 20 calls sometimes. Most of our work can be done by phone."
Although most of the cases are channeled to the appropriate staff aide before Fisher sees them, even the congressman has felt the presure of case work at times.
One weekend recently, Fisher received a call at home from a distraught woman who was threatening suicide. Within 30 minutes he contacted one of his cases workers who looked into it, asked a personal friend living near the woman to go talk to her and tracked down her husband, who had no idea there was a problem.
"A lot of people just want some therapy - someone to talk to," said Fisher. "They really don't know where to turn and they just want someone to pay attention to them so we try to do this.
"Since I've been in Congress we've all learned how to handle constituent problems. I have five staff aides handling cases full-time but the rest of the staff also does a share of the case work. Even my wife and kids have learned how to deal with people who call with problems."
"One of the biggest problems with this kind of work," explained Gray," is that most people come here as a last resort - out of desperation. With cases like that it's hard not to get involved.
"And believe me, it takes a toll on you. We've all been in tears at one time or another."