Opinion

Felix Salmon

U.S. immigration datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
July 13, 2010

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.

Comments
5 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Being a frequent visitor of immigration services all over the world and having a lot of experience with visa etc for employess as well,I would like to remark that they are more or less the same all over the world.
The only pleasant experience I ever had was with Thai immigration they treated everybody who behaved normally with utmost courtesy.
But mainly it is irritating in one way or another. Totally unlogical rules; totally unlogical execution; standard unpoliteness; double standards (fortunately I was basically always with the good pack, but it irritates when you can walk through and other people have to line up from 5.00 am in the cold or rain, not so much that I would do it myself). But mainly total disorganization and preference for unnecessary time consuming procedures.

Having said that for a country like the US or basically any country that like to be on the forefront imho it is essential that these immigration procedures are considerably improved, especially for international company employees and highly educated workforce. No country can grow to its potential if certain knowledge only available abroad is not available (like language skills, local knowledge and network; niche area knowledge etc.). Furthermore if you can attrack the best and the brightest from abroad that generates a lot of jobs and income.
However probably the only part of the labor market where internationally is no oversupply at Western wage levels is this part. When the US will become aware that if some group of people are not accepting the visa-circus it is this group. As they can judge things amd likely have alternatives.
As well as by the way foreign companies who want to give their international staff foreign experience.In a globalized world you need a presence in the US but that presence can be in many forms and sizes and making immigration difficult could mean the difference between skeleton and the ‘large family sized’ presence.

Posted by Rikh | Report as abusive
 

Yes! This issue needs attention! I’ve been married to a non-US Citizen for 25 years and she’s still not a citizen. Oh we’ve tried, but dealing with INS is like being in some old novel about the Soviet Union. We mail in forms and get a response telling us to hand in the form in person. We travel and wait in line for 4 hours to hand in the form and are told it must be mailed in. We are given telephone numbers to call that have been disconnected.

On the other hand, we are told that the strength of the US economy depends entirely on the skills of its labor force — then we treat skilled labor like dirt when they try to enter the country. So the work gets sent overseas where they live anyway.

I just had a friend who left the country to reapply for his visa. They told him it would take three days. A couple months later (he had to rent an apt there) they finally sent him visa — which had been processed in 3 days, but not mailed for a month (and they wouldn’t take his calls or questions in the meantime. Then when he came back the FBI (no kidding) questioned him about why he had been gone so long and where he’d been.

And then we have the one way a company in need of skilled labor can bring workers into the US — the H1-B visa, also known as the “indentured servant program”. In return for sponsorship the immigrant often agrees to work cheap so that the sponsor can underbid companies that employee Americans. (This is an open secret at some of the largest tech firms in the US.) I’d much rather just let everybody have a green card and compete with them head-to-head.

Who the heck is going to pay for the social security benefits of all these retiring baby boomers. Just me?

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Posted by bruce1963 | Report as abusive
 

Getting rid of our racist quota system would also be nice, but this seems to one area of government around the world that uses Kafka as a inspiration for their rules.

I wouldn’t think green cards are lost frequently in the mail so much as they are stolen.

That said, raising the minimum wage, increasing mandatory welfare benefits, and increasing immigration at the same time doesn’t seem to be a winning formula. I am all for increasing immigration, at the cost of the first two.

Posted by mattmc | Report as abusive
 

What does Congress need to do here? My understanding is much less. I want to imply that if wanted, Obama Administration could make the procedural reforms at USCIS and crack a whip on the bureaucracy. As many folks comment, this President is simply not interested in doing things which are in his hands and is more interested in only some silly grandiose talk.

If Congress is not in the shape of bringing any immigration reforms, why is Obama not making the ‘administrative reforms and transparency’ as the top priority of USCIS? GOP cannot oppose that. We are not talking increasing any visa quota or so. We are simply talking a streamlined process. Why would American Business not benefit from that?

Banks can handle millions of customers and trillions of dollars in a process which is reasonably secure and prompt. Then why not USCIS? No wonder, people are going to argue that ‘this socialistic guy’ is simply interested in increasing the government bureaucracy but not to make it work. I mean it is shame on Hillary and Obama when a celebrated journalist is denied visa when no one knows why he is denied!

Obama has had a great opportunity to show case his ‘government intervention’ theory by shaping up USCIS. He has squandered that opportunity. Of course, he and Dems deserve to be punished which is quite clearly indicated by the cratering public support to this once messiah but now with clay feet guy. Obama is just one more politician who talks ‘sweet but does not do’ things which are in his hands.

Posted by umeshgeeta | Report as abusive
 

I am sorry to sound so cold-hearted. But right now, the unemployment figures indicate that adding to our population is suicidal. I hear over and over again “but Americans won’t do these jobs”. No they won’t, but if they don’t you will have to raise wages to the point that they will accept the jobs. It is a simple supply-demand problem, that can be remedied by paying a better wage, if the company wants the work done. What these protesters really mean is: “”no American will do the job at the pathetic wages I am offering with no benefits”. The population growth in the U.S. is rapidly outstripping the job growth. I am sorry for our latino and other cousins, but we cannot tolerate this level of unemployment, with continued immigration, given our current economic situation.

The rest of the world is worse. As an American, I have tried to emigrate to both Sweden and the Netherlands. Guess what? They will take in an EU immigrant from Bulgaria or Slovenia, with full work-permit status, but Americans need not apply. Other than in Japan, I can’t think of a single country that the residents will benefit from incoming immigrants.

Posted by TaxLawyer | Report as abusive
 

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