USCIS Moves (gasp!) to Upgrade Arriving Immigrant Populations

By David North on May 15, 2011

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agrees thoroughly, particularly in this administration, with the Emma Lazarus approach to immigration; you know, "Give me your poor, your huddled masses . . ."

So it may come as a surprise to both the public and the agency that it is about to make major operational changes, and that its proposed procedures would, indirectly, cause that phrase to read: "Give me your rich, your English-speaking, your computer-savvy individuals . . ."

Yes, USCIS is, unconsciously, about to make our newly arrived immigrant populations smaller and more elite with greater human capital, on average, and with fewer disadvantages. Though this might be a worthy, deliberate policy move, it is not. It is a total accident. It is a by-product of an effort to save money, and to make the immigration process work more smoothly.

What I have in mind is the agency decision to move, over the next few years, into a totally internet-based application processing system to replace its current paper-based systems. The complications to be caused by this switch were discussed at a USCIS "stakeholder" meeting recently, one that was reported in the April 18 issue of Interpreter Releases, on p. 1069 (not available online).

IR, as is its wont, devoted much of the article to comments from pro-migration people that such a system would be hurtful to people with one or more of the following characteristics:

  • those who have minimal English skills

  • are not computer literate

  • have low incomes and no bank accounts

  • are unrepresented by counsel and are incarcerated

  • do not have driver's licenses

  • belong to communities that may have a cultural bias against computers, and

  • are elderly

It may be hardhearted of me, certainly America-centric, but does not that describe a population that should not be encouraged to migrate in the first place?

While government systems should not be designed to handicap the already handicapped among its current legal residents, applying systems that discourage the arrival of people with the
listed characteristics who are currently outside the country is a totally different matter.

If USCIS can devise a system that will see to it that our arriving immigrant populations, rather than poorer than the residents on average, as they are now, rather than being less computer- and English-savvy than residents, should have higher average scores on these variables, well, more power to the agency!

The logical consequence of the imposition of an all-computer application system, to pick up on the flip-side of the stakeholder observations, would be that some of the less-skilled and less prosperous of the would-be immigrants would be discouraged from applying, thus, inadvertently, raising the human capital averages of the populations that get through the system.

An immediate reaction would be – yes, but if they don't have those skills they can pay money to get others to handle their applications for them. Of course, but that would take money and would serve as another (unconscious) sorting mechanism.

I can imagine a conversation in a sending country that goes something like this: ". . . but if you go to America they will want you, before you get a visa, and every so often afterwards, to fill out a long form on the computer – and in English – and if you can't do that you get in trouble . . ."

The people who run USCIS must be aware of these hidden consequences of modernization but the pressures on them, from Congress and elsewhere, to computerize the application process are intense.

There is a precedent for such an all-computer application system and that is in the most expendable of our migration programs, the visa lottery, which is run by the State Department, not USCIS. All aliens who want to enter must do so via a computerized system, and I suspect that provision has lifted the average skill level of the applicants from what it would be were paper applications to be accepted.

But as a recent news item has indicated that system ran into major problems this spring, and the computerized drawing for the 50,000 diversity visas has to be done all over again.

The computer apparently had selected, and notified, an inappropriate set of winners who will now have to un-notified. I think the chance of winning a visa twice, under these circumstances, is something like one out of three hundred, so there will be a lot of sad faces around the globe.

With better luck the whole system would have self-destructed and ruined the diversity lottery for this year, but that did not occur.