March 16, 2006

In the Devil's Territory

Since my recent run-in with the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) I have done a bit of thinking about where, exactly, this system went awry. And why has it not been mended appropriately? Immigration reform is a hot topic in Washington, and yet I am skeptical that anything meaningful will be done to repair this mortally injured system.

I have now been there. 26 Federal Plaza, while heavily secured, is an Administrative Assistant's worst nightmare. There are towering stacks of books on desks each looking more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa than the last. There are rows of offices with various papers littering the floors. There are more cubicles than Rain Man could count. The scene behind the one-way glass doors is veritable mayhem.

Additionally, the immigration officials engage in behavior that, while understandable in the private world, is totally unconscionable for an immigration official:
Immigration: I need to see your receipt.
Customer: Uh, uh, no... uh (clearly is not fluent in English ) Uhhh...(shuffling of papers as he displays a variety of pieces of paper to the officer)
Immigration: (louder, without looking at the papers) You are required to display your receipt!
Customer: ressit?
Immigration: (louder) you MUST show me your NOTICE OF ACTION!

O.k. who here finds "Notice of Action" clearer than "receipt?" I don't even know what a Notice of Action is.

It is impossible to fully explain what the experience is like, and this, I believe is at the root of the problem. Not enough of the voting population has been through the USCIS system. One gains a profound appreciation for what does and does not work within a system, when one actually goes through it. This is why I feel the need to use my own story, and speak about immigration in the first person. I have hundreds of books and articles on immigration issues and I have studied much of the current research on immigration, but by actually having a case and being processed by USCIS I have gained a knowledge that is unique and invaluable. The experience, as I found it, has not been captured in any of the material I have read.

Here's my analogy: the DMV is notorious for being difficult to deal with. Most of us find the DMV to be a time vacuum staffed with drones who can't help you beyond reading the bureaucratically produced card in front of them. We all hate going to the DMV. However, it seems to have gotten better. Yes, yes there are bad days at the DMV, but I have not heard anyone say that it is significantly worse than it used to be. USCIS is the DMV on it's worst day. Instead of the process taking hours or days, it takes years and decades. I would rather have gone to the DMV everyday for the last two years than deal with USCIS for even one day. I am without a hint of doubt when I say that if the DMV was as bad as USCIS, there would be riots in the streets.

Unfortunately, the people serviced by USCIS are, most often, in precarious positions. They are beholden to the government office for their rights to live here or work here or seek refuge here. For many, their lives depend on approval by the USCIS. These are not people who are likely to riot in the streets. The inner workings of the USCIS are experienced by people who are not likely to point out the shortcomings and demand change.

So as an educated American citizen, I am here to attest that the USCIS is archaic and dysfunctional, and we must fix it. How do we fix it? I am not entirely sure what the answer is, but I am not at all inclined to believe that anyone who has not been through the USCIS process can develop an effective plan for change. I can say from experience, that even the most empathetic or the most educated of people could not appreciate the atrocities that lurk within the USCIS system. I propose that before anyone (... that includes the White House) formulates an opinion on how to reform the immigration system they need to consult with someone who has actually been processed by USCIS.

1 comment:

Andros said...

Very interesting. Just as I suspected: reshuffling the federal bureaucracy and by creating a Leviathan doesn't make it better. Sadly, I'm not surprised that the Immigration Agency, now under the DHS (the Homelanders), hasn't gotten any better in pushing along legitimate cases and effictively screening out the potential troublemakers.

I've been following the current discussions in Congress to reform the broken immigration system. I don't think we're having an open/honest discussion. Like you said, they should solicit those people who've been through the system for a reality check.