Making Significant Decisions About Aliens Without Interviewing Them

Do you suppose you could gain permanent legal entry to the United States without actually talking to a federal official? Could that decision be made solely on a written application?

Sounds unlikely. But it happens much more often than you would think.

Aren't all would-be legal visitors to the United States first interviewed by a State Department official overseas, and then, at least briefly, by another government official at the airport? No.

This is both a subject I have worried about for years and something that is rarely discussed, but now a member of Congress has raised the issue in a specialized setting.

Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) has introduced an amendment to the about-to-be-renewed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) now pending in the House that would require face-to-face interviews for applicants for U visas, those given to aliens who have faced spousal abuse and other crimes.

The U visa is a momentarily nonimmigrant one, but after the passage of time you can convert it to a green card and secure green cards for members of your immediate family — in short a valuable benefit to the person (usually a woman) involved and a sort of specialized amnesty for some illegal aliens in the United States.

Rep. Adams's attempt to bring a little rationality to the U visa process, however, will be an uphill battle because the mechanism for the change she has chosen runs into two fierce bits of opposition: 1) strong elements of the women's movement that like the current system, and 2) the parochial interests of the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and ardent sponsor of VAWA's renewal, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

What Rep. Adams wants to do is take the 60-some officers responsible for making these U visa decisions at USCIS's Vermont regional service center and disperse them around the nation to interview would-be U visa holders in person. She notes that there can be a lot of fraud in the program and that face-to-face interviews would reduce that problem. The House Judiciary Committee yesterday supported her position on the interviews.

That, however, means taking jobs away from Vermont and giving them to other parts of the nation, which is sure to irk Sen. Leahy. That narrow angle to the controversy was played up when the Burlington Free Press recently reported on the story.

Some background: First, apparently more worried about consistency and costs than fraud prevention over the years, both USCIS and its legacy agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have moved case-by-case determinations away from district offices to the four regional service centers, which are, in effect, decision factories.

For example, decisions about new applicants for Temporary Protected Status are made in a regional service center; no interview is needed, even though the TPS grant gives a previously illegal alien free and legal access to the American job market — a real boon.

Second, U visas are well recognized within USCIS as troublesome. This is an agency that routinely says "yes" to at least 90 percent of the applications it handles, yet the Free Press article indicates that only 68 percent of the U visa applications handled in fiscal Year 2011 were approved.

Third, no piece of paper is likely to reflect the realities that crop up regularly in any interview situation; for instance, is the illegal alien "victim" a muscular 180-pound person while the "abuser" looks to be only about 120 pounds?

Fourth, the alleged victims in the U visa category are not the only aliens who can argue that their history of being abused should bring them a green card. There are much larger groups of refugees and asylum applicants making somewhat similar arguments, and I have had some experience with both programs.

Before a refugee is admitted to the United States as such he or she is interviewed first by a specialist from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, and then by a team of visiting U.S. officials.

Asylum seekers have two different routes to green card status, both involving at least one if not two extensive face-to-face interviews.

If they apply for asylum after arrival, they go to a series of offices that handle only asylum applicants for an extensive interview; these offices are separate from the larger, general purpose USCIS district offices. These are "affirmative" applications for asylum. If the applicant is turned down, he or she can then appeal to an immigration judge.

The other route, or a "defensive" application for asylum, opens up when an illegal alien is picked up by authorities for deportation. At that point some aliens decide that they have an asylum case, and they are given hour-long "merits" hearings before a robed immigration judge, with lawyers on both sides, and with ample opportunities for the admission of written material and statements from witnesses. I have sat in on many of these hearings.

Why should crime victims be accepted without an interview, when would-be refugees and asylees must have one or more interviews?

On the other hand, speaking as one who is experienced at writing about complex issues, I suspect that I would rather try my hand at a written application than a court hearing or a long interview if I had a weak claim for an immigration benefit.

The irony is that USCIS would hate it if it became known that their system favored the literary elite, as it currently does, and disfavored those with lesser writing skills or without lawyers. You know:

"Give me your literate, linguistically skilled individuals, yearning to breathe free ..."