How to fix the U.S. immigration system? A create-your-own recipe thread

It’s become even more glaringly obvious over the past few months that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is a big, fat mess, and that much of the time it has proven unable to handle even the more basic parts of its huge and unwieldy mission. The reasons for this are quite complex, ranging from lack of consensus over what its mission should be, to its split and constantly shifting enforcement priorities, to disastrously inadequate computer systems, to underfunding…you get the picture. The results: waiting times of up to 2-3 years for benefits which would be approvable in a matter of minutes if anyone ever got around to looking at the applications; lost applications; ridiculous amounts of fraud perpretrated upon an overwhelmed system; terrorists who receive student visas months after their bloody and quite public deaths; huge disruptions to the lives of ordinary folks who need decisions from INS to do things like go to their home countries in family emergencies; we’ve all read stories like these in the media.

So what’s the best way to fix this mess? Various proposals are currently banging around Congress right now, and it’s becoming clearer that some kind of major restructuring is about to be legislated; the House and the Senate are just inthe process of hashing out the details. I’ve got my own opinions, some of which I injected into what became an inadvertent hijacking of the “are USA pissed at Iran?” thread over the past couple of days.

What I’m curious about, though, are all your opinions as reasonably well-informed laypeople; how can INS balance its enforcement mission and its benefits adjudication mission, given the resources available? How could they have done things better in the past, and what could they change to do things better in the future? Should part or all of the agency’s mission be divided among other agencies? Or is the system so broken that it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up?

If you respond, I’d like to know whether you base your response on a specific personal experience, particularly if it’s one that hasn’t been widely reported in the U.S. mainstream national media (since I read most of those). And thanks for participating in my maiden thread.

I am assuming you assume the INS should implement the same immigration policy the US has had until now because discussing that policy would be another whole thread of its own. Since I happen to believe the immigration policy itself is crazy I do not think I can contribute much useful to a thread dedicated to how best implement it.

One problem is that the INS “serves” people who do not vote and so they can do pretty much whatever they and get away with it. Only when they screw an American citizen by mistake does the case get any coverage but, on the whole, the INS has been screwing foreigners at its own discretion and getting away with it. I know it well because I am one of them.

There was a thread some time ago on this topic where a few people receounted similar experiences and you may want to try searching for it but I am afraid I have entirely given up on trying to use the search function here (I can barely post as I keep getting timeouts). I just remember telling my own experience in that thread and also China Guy told some of his own experience in dealing with the INS. The whole thing makes me cringe.

The Oregonian did a series of articles for which it won some prize or other ans they are very interesting and illustrative. You can find them here: and

that should give you plenty to read. They are really good.

Part of my job is handling the paperwork for visas and green cards for all of our foreign employees, so I’m intimately familiar with the perversity of the process.

I think 90% of the INS’ problems would be solved with proper management (though I suppose that could be said of any federal agency). I mean that the INS is basically a large paper shuffler, so proper computer systems and adequate staffing could turn them into an efficient shuffler of paper. Dead terrorists would have their applications pulled from the system quickly and easily. Simple applications would be viewed and judged 24 hours after receipt. Complex applications, like green cards, could be handled in months (rather than 3-5 years) if the periods where the application is sitting on someone’s desk were eliminated.

This sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s not. In India and Indonesia, the U.S. embassies provide 4 hour turnaround on visa applications–applicants drop their package in the slot in the morning, and pick it up in the afternoon.

They could take a lesson from the IRS. I e-filed my taxes this year, and that took an hour for the long form; two weeks later I had my state and federal refunds direct deposited to my bank account.

If they got their act together, they could eliminate a whole class of immigration lawyers, who’s fees for submitting applications are based entirely on getting the complex maze of filings done correctly.

It took me a while but I found the thread: Those wonderful US immigration officials (not)
Other related threads: Why illegal immigrants?
Search the board for “immigration” and you’ll get a bunch of threads.

The INS can give lessons to Chinese laogai/gulag officials. I am not kidding. I realize that I am over seas, but my wife has had responses that take years and were just a checked form. There is absolutely nothing that could be done to the INS that would make it worse.

One suggestion is that their policies should be spelled out in black and white. One thing that drives me nuts is that permanent residents (green card) holders need to be physically present in the US at least once a year. That’s the law. The policy is that if you visit the US every 6 months, then absolutely no problem, but if it’s more than 6 months but less than 6 months, you might have a problem. Well, fuck me, just tell me what the goddman rule is. I’ll follow your rule, no matter how much I may personally disagree with it.

If you have a re-entry permit, you are theoretically entitled to re-entry to the US no matter how long you have been outside of the country, even if it’s greater than the 1 year rule. Except, this piece of paper, may not be honored if the shitstain at the counter and then his boss decides he has a bad hair day. Then, baby you are just shit out of luck with no right of appeal. My wife squeaked through because I and our one year old daughter accompanied her. The immigration supervisor was courteous to us, while at the same time verbally bitch slapped another Chinese national with US green card for not properly understanding some redneck drawling accent.

Hansel is also correct. There should be no need for immigration lawyers. It should be understandable enough that at least a native english speaker hsould be able to do their own paperwork. I swear that the documentation was designed, and then explained in writing by some illiterate, illigitimate, hell spawn animal abusing sadist.

The entire US bureaucracy gets slower when you live abroad. The IRS takes months. A Social Security card was applied for my daughter back in September, and of course I still don’t have it. By the way, I need it to claim her as an exemption for my taxes. After year one, tough shit rule applies. But the INS just takes the case. I have spent hours on hold for INTERNATIONAL phone calls in the middle of the night to match working hours, only to find when I finally get through that the computer is down and can’t be accessed. This has happened more than once. ARGH.

Trust me, there are a lot more people who’s lives have been truely messed up rather than just severely inconvenienced like my wife and by extension myself and our dual citizen daughter (that’s another rant).

For background, maybe I should have mentioned that although I am a U.S. citizen by birth, I have spent basically my entire career dealing with the INS in some capacity or another. My first job out of college was in refugee resettlement, from which I took a job as a court interpreter for the Office of the Immigration Judge. Although I have great respect for the job the Dept. of Justice is trying to do, the place drove me absolutely batty after a while, so I went back to grad school and now work as a paralegal in one of the aforementioned expensive law firms. (And I will say there is a bit more to it than just making sure you jump through all the right hoops!) I also have a large proportion of foreign-born friends and acquaintances in various immigration statuses. I have a great deal of empathy for people who have been hassled by INS; when I applied to the DOJ, my security clearance took four times as long as it was supposed to, because I had spent a semester in the Soviet Union (you can imagine how much they liked that, even though it was part of an organized academic program with U.S. government funding). And quite frankly, Soviet immigration bureaucrats were more polite to me than INS has been on the occasions I’ve entered the U.S.

So as you can imagine, I’ve seen or heard of just about every wacky kind of thing that INS could possibly do. What I’m trying to accomplish with this thread is to see if there are any novel ideas out there among the general population that might actually help some people while getting the job done in the least painful and most efficient manner possible.

Yes, it’s a government bureaucracy, and therefore hugely inefficient and screwed up. I also agree that they could take some pointers from the IRS and the student loan people, and that IT contracts should not necessarily be given to the lowest bidder without consideration for who has a clue about how to accomplish the job well. They should also hire people with experience and brains, not just whoever has the endurance to sit through a civil service exam and is willing to accept the very low starting salaries that the INS offers.

You must admit, though, that many, many people do commit immigration fraud. People commit crimes for which they indeed should be deported, and people do sneak across borders, and people do lie on their applications. Part of this is because the people adjudicating applications are so overwhelmed, and don’t have the proper management and resources. So, I repeat, how do we realistically fix this beyond firing idiotic and cruel people, and getting reasonable processing times and computer systems that do what they’re supposed to?

P.S. In my attempt to post the thread yesterday, I ran into problems; the other half of the duplicate thread is also out there on GD. I’m trying to have our Humble Administration consolidate the two halves, but in the meantime, please look at the other one!

As I said in another thread I believe half of what the INS is doing is totally unnecessary simply because if the USA, Canada, Europe, and a few other countries with similar economic and cultural levels would just open up their borders to each other’s citizens, no harm at all and much good would come from that. The INS would have their workload reduced and they could do a better job with fewer people. As it is now they are doing a job that is not only unnecessary, it is harmful.

P.P.S. Rhum Runner, I’d be greatly obliged if you could re-post here your response of yesterday to the other half of my thread; I think it has some interesting food for thought. A couple of responses to it:

  1. There is already a legal requirement for permanent residents (all non-citizens, in fact) to carr their green cards with them at all times, and to notify the INS when they change address. It is almost universally ignored. However, when people do write INS to inforn them of an address change, in the best of cases it gets lumped into “general correspondence,” where maybe a year later someone will enter the data in the computer. If you lose your green card, it takes several months to get a replacement.

  2. It seems drastic and unfair to freeze assets, deport people, etc. based on a notice sent to an address that may be up to a year out of date due to INS’ failure to keep up with their own mail.

  3. Some of INS’ worst jurisdictional issues are the ones involving gray areas between enforcement and benefits adjudication. Example: say someone shows up at an airport with no passport or a fake one, and expresses a desire to file for asylum (happens all the time). Do you detain the person? You have no idea of the person’s real identity, keep in mind, but if he/she is a real refugee who fled with the clothes on his/her back, there may not be any documents to prove identity. And what if there are kids involved? It can take months to put together a good asylum case, especially if there are language problems and problems getting supporting evidence from the home country.

Fel free to chew away at my food for thought…

Based on my experience, your time estimates are far too low. It can take longer than a year. YMMV. As for a replacement green card, Did the paperwork in July. Now it is May. Not a fucking thing.

Agreed with this one. It’s a major pain. I can’t imagine what immigrants do. I use my brothers address, otherwise this would be an even greater inconvenience.

Okay, maybe I’m bitching too much. One thing would be to enter the computer age so that applicants can check the status on-line. As I wrote earlier, I’ve spent over a thousand dollars on international phone hold only to be told to call back another day.

You want to check in person, first you have to go to an INS office. Then wait in a long line, then go wait in another line, then finally get to talk to someone with a computer. Oh ya, then the INS won’t accept cash or personal checks, so you’ve got to go find a money order nearby. Maybe a passport photo is required, but they may not be able to take one on site.

Easily available information that clearly details what is needed would help. I mean if you don’t know you’ve got to fork over an $80 dollar fee, and don’t bring cash so you can go find a place that issues money orders, well you’ve just wasted half a day at least. Really makes that annual week long vacation to the US more enjoyable if you get to spend the first couple days trying to deal with INS paperwork.

I would also like to see priority service being given to spouses of American citizens. I pay taxes, and this is a service that I would like to see. I am also financially responsible for my spouse, so you’d think there would be a lower risk to the US. Fast track it.

Like to know who in the bureacracy is responsible. Now they are faceless, nameless bureaucrats processing your paper. Never know who is responsible.

Fix the damn suggestions and guidelines. I’ll give an example. If you’re married less than two years, your spouse gets a “conditional” green card. It’s good for only two years, and then must be switched to a “permanent” green card. IIRC, the guidlines are don’t do anything until 6 months before expiry of the conditional card. Okay. At that time, apply for the change to permanent. I don’t have it handy, but the reply we received regarding this change came something like *two * years late. The reply was along the lines of, well, I see your conditional card has expired, what would you like to do? By then, we had already re-applied and received a permanent greencard. Granted, had we lived in the US, this would not have been such a problem.

Also, make some sort of arrangements for spouses of Americans living overseas who don’t work for the US government.

Sheesh, I don’t really know how to fix it. The INS is broken, that is for sure.

Hmmmm, maybe that’s why this thread has been so much quieter than I expected, although God knows there are enough immigration horror stories out there to write a multi-volume series; nobody knows what to do about the mess, inlcuding Congress.
China Guy, I agree the INS desperately needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the information age. Other government agencies have certainly managed; there was the IRS example, but even better is the Department of Education’s student loan consolidation program. I have a big pile of debt with them; once my loans were consolidated, they sent me a password, and now I can check the status of my account online anytime I damn well feel like it; date of last payment, date of future payment, proportion that went to principal/interest, print forms for full payoff or forbearances, the whole nine yards. It’s a beautiful thing. Plus, when you call them, you get a live human being to answer your questions; I’ve never waited more than 5-10 minutes.

In contrast, my office has about 50 people in it, and one of them spends her entire life doing nothing but constantly calling various INS offices for status updates on behalf of our clients. First she has to hit the redial button a few million times until she even gets to wait on hold. Then, after someone finally answers, tehy tell her that she gets to pick maybe 5 people on her list to ask about, because–get this—they don’t want to tie up the line unfairly with one person’s questions!

Anyone know how INS fees are used? (They are supposed to be used to adjudicate the applications with which they are paid.) I can’t believe this is true; a simple Form I-539 (Application for Extension or Change of Nonimmigrant Status, which is most frequently used for a visitor visa extension or application for change of status, such as that filed by 2 of the 9/11 terrorists when they enrolled in flight school), which consists of a 2-page form, costs $140, and should take about 5 minutes to adjudicate. Yet they frequently take a year or more, which (if it’s an application for an extension of a visitor visa), is usually far longer than the period of extension the applicant had requested. I can’t believe it costs $140 for a few minutes of an INS officer’s time, even if you factor in overhead for the aforementioned sucky computer systems.

OK, enough of my ranting…back to yours!

Here’s a link to the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony of Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell, speaking on behalf of the American Immigration Lawyers Association regarding what he thinks should be done to INS (besides blow the place up, but that’s another story). He’s well-placed to know what the issues are and he’s got some interesting ideas; it’s long, but it’s in plain English.

The testimony was just a few days ago, but most of the ideas are not new. If y’all can wade through it, I’d be interested to know what you think.

  • too good. I’d say burn it to the ground, sow the lot with salt and then sing barbershop tunes in the ruins. Not that I’m bitter…

FTR, I just entered the U S on a K-1 (fiance) visa and is preparing for round 2, i.e. getting enough paperwork done that I can actually LIVE in the US (work permit, primarily. I’d like to put my skills to good use and pay taxes. One would think that this would be encouraged.).

IMHO, a place to begin would be to split the office people actually in the business of making the decisions and the uniformed people running after suspected perpetrators at the borders into two separate organizations. Two different mindsets are needed for those two tasks. I’d probably argue that the uniformed function could be handled by customs and police, anyway.

Perhaps break up into even smaller units, get those up to speed or shut down, then reintegrate where necessary. I’ve seen that work wonders in a bloated, bureaucratic telco. Small units can maneuver and adapt, and where they NEED to communicate, they soon learn. If too many ressources are sent on pooling information between two smaller units, merge them.

Another overdue task is issuing some info to the public on what to actually do!

I’ll plead guilty to pestering the INS with loads of presumably dumb questions. I do not, however, consider myself all that dumb. Time spent on making a clear, unambigous procedure description for the typical cases would be very well spent because it would save people like me - who can read English but, alas, not minds - loads of phonecalls to the overworked people.

It’s no coincidence that there’s an underbrush of websites with advice, hints, more-or-less correct information etc. etc. - the INS itself gives information sparingly and often quite cryptically, if not downright contradictory. For instance, the cover letter from the consulate stated a list of forms quite different from those sent with it - it appeared that the forms were correct, the cover letter was out of date. (We’d been educating ourselves ad knew this.)

And in the end, I was asked to bring one thing, but then told that another was needed. (I brought EVERYTHING. Stay ahead of the buggers!:D)

A third task would be to instill a little respect for the fact that people have to take bloody important decisions based on the INS info. Do I quit my job or not ? Can I start shipping my furniture ? Cancel my apartment lease ? I made decisions like this on telephonic information from someone I may or may not have been able to find and hold accountable. It’s not fun.

Task number four: Get rid of the bloody backlog!

First focus on what’s important and what’s not, and get some gofers to run through the routine crap.

Routine crap example: I’m in the US on a K-1 visa that’ll expire in 90 days. No prob, because I’ll marry before that (and start yet another application procedure…).

However, I’d really like to be able to work until then. I am entitled to, even - it’s just not worth my while to get a work permit (EAD), because it’ll probably take more than 90 days to process.

Now why the HELL can’t they just give me a work permit at the port of entry ? Even if I was to abuse it somehow, it’d be valid for a pesky 90 days - even I can’t run the US economy into the ground in that timeframe. It’s a nonproblem to give me a temporary EAD, but for some reason it has to pass someone’s desk. Helloooo? I was let into the country, y’know. I got my shots and you’ve verified my clean criminal record.

Spend all the time you need to verify my records, I’m happy with that. But sheesh, gimme my work permit once you’re sure I’m legally in the country. And you’re sure, because you just let me in! Hand me a temporary EAD at the port of entry, and I’ll be pleased as punch.

<calming down>

Anyhoo, the last example serves to illustrate what I believe is the main problem: The INS is not geared along the processes its enforcing on its users. The organization appears to be structured more or less around the papers it handles - this is the department for approving work permits, this is the department for verifying form DS-156, this is the office for form DS-157 etc. The process for the applicant is then to send paperwork to these offices in the correct sequence and hoping it doesn’t lay around for too long between departments. And in an organization like this, it’s not a problem that K-1 visa immigrants can’t get work permits - actually, it’s less strenous for the work permit department.

If, instead, there was a “department for fiancee visas” with people actually focusing on the process of “getting the right fiances to the US and keeping the wrong ones out”, someone might have spotted he ridiculous work permit situation and rectified it - because it would reflect badly on his organization that this situation existed.

Well, it’s a thought, anyway.

S. Norman

Spiny Norman, you’re sounding an awful lot like a certain Melancholy Dane! Seriously, I don’t deal with too many fiancee visa situations (my office does primarily work-based, not family-based applications), but it seems I remember there IS a procedure for being able to work immediately upon entry on a K-1. If I remember correctly, the INS officer at the port of entry is supposed to stamp your I-94 card “Employment Authorized,” and that would be all you would need to show to prove employment authorization. Otherwise, even after you get married and file the I-130/I-485, you’ll have to wait another 90 days, at least, before your EAD based on the pending adjustment application is approved. That’s just silly, and a waste of your professional talents, whatever they may be.

If you are interested in discussing options for work visas if the former won’t work for you and you don’t want to be stuck waiting that long, let me know; I may have some more ideas for you, but would need more information about you specifically.

Anyway, back to the higher-level policy stuff: what you propose in your 3rd paragraph is actually the essence of most of the bills currently banging around Congress. The hard part will be coordinating activities in a sensible way, especially given INS’ historically crappy IT systems and ability to retrieve other information in a timely manner.

I agree that the system sucks big rocks, and what you say makes a lot of sense, especially the part about posting written information, in plain English (and maybe also plain Spanish, Polish, and Vietnamese) in places where it’s accessible to the general public, to take some of the load off of personnel who would be put to much better use adjudicating applications to reduce the backlogs. I’ve been a foreigner trying to figure out visa renewal procedures myself (in Spain, and boy, you should have seen the Soviet visa application if you think the Americans ask some weird questions!), and bureaucrats, especially those who have never left the cornfields surrounding the INS Nebraska Service Center, sometimes just don’t get it. Making major life decisions based on a 2-minute phone call with nothing in writing to back it up must suck even bigger rocks; at least I knew I was just an exchange student and would go home in a few months.

Maybe I should post an Ask the Immigration Paralegal thread, something like the recent Ask the Gay Guy thread?? Hang in there, enjoy your wedding, and don’t let the stupid bureaucrats get you down!