Computer Literacy, Not English Language, Pushed by Immigration System

By David North, September 4, 2012

It would be politically incorrect for Congress to demand any knowledge of the English language on the part of arriving migrants, but apparently it is perfectly OK for the immigration system to force computer literacy on would-be arrivals.

I am not a zealot on the language issue, but I find the current posture of our government on these subjects to be a peculiar one.

Unlike some other English-speaking nations, there does not appear to be a U.S. demand for English for any applying immigrant group; there are U.S. requirements for some knowledge of English by some, in fact most, candidates for citizenship, and for some nonimmigrants (e.g., some students), but never for legal immigrants.

On the other hand, the government is making it progressively harder for the non-computer literate to seek migration benefits.

Is there a hidden elitist agenda at work here? Are the techies infiltrating the government to keep the non-techies out in the cold? Is there a secret effort by the English-only folk, thwarted on linguistic requirements, to enforce computer literacy on the masses who want to come to the United States?

No, I think it is something else. It costs less to handle electronic communications than verbal and written ones, so without much thought about the computer literacy levels of many migrants, a population with a low average education level, the government is pressing ahead to force those who want immigration benefits to learn how to use a computer — or to hire someone with that knowledge.

So, here we have a Democratic administration that (appropriately in my eyes) wants more equality on financial bases, but considerably less on a technological basis. Interesting.

I visited the nearest USCIS office the other day to see what others without connections faced when they tried to do that for the first time. It is a brand-new office in a typical suburban location, all gleaming glass, steel, aluminum, and security systems — considerably more forbidding that the down-at-the-heels INS offices, usually in low-income locations, I remember from some 20 years ago.

After going through the airport-style screening process, I was placed in the public line, as opposed to the door for the staff. I waited a few minutes and then faced a USCIS officer who looked up from her computer to ask (pleasantly) what I wanted. My sense is that I had arrived at an opportune time, and that the wait was usually much longer.

I wanted to get inside the office to see what it was like, but did not say so. I said, first, that I wanted to apply for a job, given that the agency must be hiring in view of the president's new amnesty policy. I spoke in English but did not say that I was a citizen. Her reaction was that I would have to apply online, and she gave me a link.

Thwarted, I shifted my approach and said I would also like to talk to someone about the immigrant investor program. She looked at me skeptically — I was in jeans and a casual shirt — and asked if I had a million to invest.

I said that one needed only half a million in many places, and I did have that, and besides I was asking on behalf of a well-to-do in-law. She told me that if I wanted an interview with a USCIS staffer I would have to apply on line, and she gave me another link.

I left. The guys behind me in the waiting line, probably from Central America, looked as if they did not have any more computer skills than I have, but I may have been wrong.

In addition to this admittedly anecdotal evidence, bear in mind, as I noted in an earlier blog, that everyone applying for the visa lottery program — something run by the State Department — must do so on a computer. This is the totally needless program that gives away 50,000 visas a year to aliens who simply file an electronic application for a green card.

Further, and much more significantly, USCIS is moving away from paper filing systems toward a computer-based one with the catchy initials ELIS, which stand for Electronic Immigration System, as explained in this USCIS document.

DHS could have named it the Electronic Legal Immigration System, which would have given them ELLIS, but the insertion of "legal" would have suggested "illegal" which would, of course, be politically incorrect, and thus less desirable — presumably — than misspelling Ellis Island. So it is ELIS.

ELIS currently involves only a single procedure, the extension of some non-immigrant statuses, but the agency plans to convert all of its files ultimately to electronic ones, which will be a downer for aliens without computer skills.

To conclude with a bit of civics: Congress makes decisions on the linguistic skills needed to be an immigrant, but DHS, through its rules, decides on the need for computer literacy within the migrant populations. I suppose Congress could override DHS on such matters, but that does not seem likely.