U.S. immigration datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
July 13, 2010
annual report on US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and it turns out that there are plans afoot within USCIS "to improve its mailing technologies". Which means using the delivery-confirmation service of the US Postal Service. But don't hold your breath. "This program is developed, but due to financial constraints, is tentatively delayed", says the report, adding that there is "no scheduled deployment date". But that's still better than the plan to link delivery-confirmation numbers to the internal case-status system: that program hasn't even been developed yet.

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For every person with a green card, there’s a story of exasperating grappling with an incomprehensible U.S. government bureaucracy. My own story is far too long and boring to go into, but one part of it involved what turns out to be a very common occurrence: my green card was simply lost in the mail, and I was forced to reapply (and pay hundreds of dollars) for a new one on the grounds that it wasn’t returned as undeliverable.

I’ve been reading the ombudsman’s annual report on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and it turns out that there are plans afoot within USCIS “to improve its mailing technologies”. Which means using the delivery-confirmation service of the US Postal Service. But don’t hold your breath. “This program is developed, but due to financial constraints, is tentatively delayed,” says the report, adding that there is “no scheduled deployment date.” But that’s still better than the plan to link delivery-confirmation numbers to the internal case-status system: that program hasn’t even been developed yet.

Meanwhile, some of the stories about people applying for green cards go beyond exasperating and enter the realm of the truly tragic. I got my green card because I was the spouse of a U.S. citizen; the ombudsman tells the story of another applicant, who was the unmarried child of a U.S. citizen. Have a guess how long that application took:

A U.S. citizen filing a petition in August 1992 for an unmarried son or daughter (F1) in Mexico could not be processed for an immigrant visa until February 2010, nearly 18 years later. Generally it takes another year or more to complete consular processing, including security checks, medical examination, and interviews. In total, the immigration process spanned 19 years in this scenario.

Green card holders, too, can sponsor their unmarried children for green cards — but their situation is complicated even further:

Unlike the situation for a U.S. citizen’s beneficiary, who converts from the F1 to F3 preference category upon marrying while waiting for an available visa, there is no category available for the married son or daughter of a green card holder. The marriage of the son or daughter of a lawful permanent resident (F2B) voids the pending petition, and the priority date is lost. Consequently, many such beneficiaries find they must choose between marriage and immigrating to the United States.

There are nuggets like this throughout the report, and the section on the insane way that the USCIS toll-free support line is run will only confirm all your prejudices about government bureaucracy. As for the deep-seated structural problems at USCIS — what the ombudsman calls “the many systemic problems that arise from its antiquated environment” — IBM has been awarded a half-billion-dollar contract to modernize the agency’s systems. But the ombudsman notes drily that “until the immigration experience tangibly improves for customers, the success of Transformation remains an objective not yet achieved”, adding that “Since USCIS’ inception, every Director has attempted, and failed, to successfully implement a system overhaul.”

Immigration and visa nightmares are a large and growing problem for high-skill employers in the U.S.. Wall Street and Silicon Valley tend to complain the loudest about such things, but they happen everywhere — right now celebrated Colombian journalist Hollman Morris looks as though he won’t be able to take up his Nieman fellowship at Harvard, since the State Department has denied him a visa for reasons that no one can understand. Between dealing with capricious decisions and navigating the insanity that is the USCIS bureaucracy, it’s little surprise that many employers choose to simply set up shop abroad. The national economy will definitely continue to be harmed if we don’t fix this problem, but unfortunately to date there has been no sign of any ability or desire to really do that.

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