The Staff-Level Problems with Saying No to Migration Applicants

By David North on May 31, 2010

A news article in Sunday's New York Times reminded me of a conversation I had long ago with a retired diplomat.

He had been our Consul-General in Manila, one of the busiest centers of visa applications in the world:

"What you may not understand, David, is the enormous amount of work an adjudicator heaps upon himself when he says 'no' to a visa application. If he says 'yes' to someone who turns out later to be an ax-murderer, for example, the adjudicator likely will be long gone from where the visa was issued, and it will cause him no problems. But if he says 'no' to an applicant it is sure to create extra correspondence, immediately, often from politically well-connected people both near the post and back home, conversations with his boss, numerous phone calls, and the like.

"No one on the staff is supposed to think about such things, but it cannot help but weigh on your mind."

The Times story, "Maine Business Is Shut Without a Renewed Visa," dealt with one of those relatively rare occasions when a staffer, in this case with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said "no" to an application, in this case for an extension of a visa.

Though the article did not mention any extra workload for the USCIS adjudicator concerned, I could easily visualize it. Further, in a different part of the agency, you can tell from the article that the reporter's questions caused the USCIS PR people to devote some time and energy to the matter.

The story dealt with a minor, but interesting, flow of nonimmigrants into the U.S. In this case it was a middle-aged, middle-class couple from Great Britain who had secured E-2 visas some years ago as nonimmigrant investors. Mr. and Mrs. Franks put their life savings into a small restaurant in Maine.

The restaurant did not prosper, but it did stay alive, producing a gross income of $64,000 for the couple in 2008, according to the Times. Their gross profit for the year was $38,800. The article did not elaborate on either of those numbers, but USCIS staff looking at them, and presumably other data, decided that this was a marginal investment, that did not argue for a renewal of the E-2 visa. These visas are good for two years, and can be, but not necessarily are, renewed without limit.

When investments seem to be going nowhere sometimes the agency denies an application for extension of the related visas.

What the (usually pro-immigrant) Times did not point out is that this is one of the relatively rare decisions which USCIS makes against migrants. In fact, the most recent USCIS information on immigration benefits, nationwide, is that it said "yes" seven times as often as it said "no" during FY 2009, a percentage drawn from these data.

The statistics on extensions of these specific E-2 (Treaty Investor) visas indicate that the agency says yes in 82-91 percent range in recent years, percentages which bracket the 7-1 yes-to-no ratio for the agency as a whole. The Times was able to pry the E-2 data from USCIS in this instance; the agency steadfastly refuses to routinely issue such information, while the State Department regularly publishes similar data.

As we all know, new small restaurants open, full of hope, all the time all over the country. About 60 per\cent of them fail within the first three years, according to
a Washington Post article.

Why the U.S. needs to grant visas to Mr. and Mrs. Franks, and other aliens, to add still more little restaurants to our overly large, national collection of them, never fails to puzzle me.