Thursday, January 04, 2007

immigration follies

The WaPo reports on the continuing mess that constitutes our immigration system:

As the White House and Congress prepare to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, U.S. officials have concluded that they lack the technology and resources to handle the millions of applications for legal residency that could result from the changes and that several efforts to modernize computers have gone astray.

Immigration officials have said for years that it is critical to update an antiquated, paper-based application process before the government grants a new path to citizenship for as many as 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States or creates a temporary-worker program, as senators and the Bush administration propose.

But in recent months, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials have determined that the troubled, $2-billion-a-year agency is unable to effectively manage its existing work, much less a flood of new applications.

The immigration system works well for neither citizens nor immigrants. This much has been clear since the student visas of two 9/11 hijackers were approved by the INS in March 2002. It is becoming clear that the reforms that were supposed to fix the system have instead fallen victim to the general atmosphere of failure.

Many legal immigrants already face years-long waits when they apply for green cards, often a first step toward obtaining citizenship. Another 100,000 names submitted to the FBI for background checks have been on hold for a year or more. Congressional auditors recently reported that 14 immigration offices had lost track of 111,000 files as of July.

Well, technically, it is not true that legal immigrants apply for green cards, since a person is not a legal immigrant until they actually receive a green card. A green card is evidence of a person’s legal permanent resident, or legal immigrant, status. But it is true that there are routine waits of 10 years or more for a green card in some immigrant categories. Getting information about a pending case from USCIS is a daunting challenge even for experienced immigration attorneys, much less people who are new to the country and have limited resources. USCIS generally has two modes of operation: sheer incompetence (i.e. losing files constantly, approving visas for dead terrorists, upgrading the website in such a way as to make any Google search on most topics useless) and more calculated abuses of power (i.e. claiming that fees which were paid have not been paid, 45 minute waits on the phone to talk to know-nothing contract employees).

As far as background checks, basically if you are from a Middle Eastern country and apply for a green card, you have a good chance of being thrown into limbo while the FBI conducts a background check. They don’t have to tell you why you are waiting, what they are checking, or when to expect an answer. They don’t have to tell you anything because as a noncitizen, you are a nonperson in the eyes of the law. And as someone from the Middle East, you are presumed to be a threat unless proven otherwise. I don’t deny that the 9/11 hijackers should have been denied student visas. But there’s got to be a more sensible, rational way to screen for security threats than the current method, one that doesn't keep out thousands of ambitious students who want to come to learn and potentially work in the U.S.

I won’t hold my breath for any meaningful reform of DHS and USCIS until there’s somebody new in the White House. Even then, the issue is so controversial and our national level of cognitive dissonance on immigration so high that I wonder if the system will ever run smoothly in my lifetime.

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