Saturday, April 12, 2008


The emergence and disappearance of immigration as an issue in the Republican (and to a much lesser degree and in the opposite direction, the Democratic) primaries, coupled with the failure of immigration reform last year, does not mean that the underlying problems---a porous southern border; the lax enforcement of labor laws that makes hiring undocumented workers attractive to employers in the first place; etc---are going away. That's the big picture.

But there's also a small picture, and it's a disturbing one, in which those parts of the federal bureaucracy responsible for processing immigration (including citizenship) applications subject immigrants to petty indignities and risk of deportation for no other apparent reason than institutional callousness. Today's NY Times front page carries a story describing how legal residents risk deportation for technical errors in complying with the maze of requirements when they attempt to become citizens. And a couple of weeks ago This American Life had a segment ("Act 2") on the way in which the Citizenship and Immigration Service opts to deport non-citizen spouses of U.S. citizens when the U.S. citizen spouse dies before the agency finishes processing the citizenship paperwork before the death---even if the surviving spouse has a child who is an American citizen. These are stories of an agency culture that is almost pointlessly callous.

Here I'll add just one personal observation that tends to confirm my hypothesis that the problem is as much one of bureaucratic culture as it is one of policy. My wife and I adopted our older daughter from China in 2002. The process involved numerous formalities, some imposed by the Chinese government (such as the requirement that documents be notarized, and then authenticated by municipal and state authorities) but others imposed by the U.S. government. I was fingerprinted five separate times during the process; not surprisingly, my fingerprints didn't change. In addition, during the period when we were waiting for U.S. government approval, we were told by the domestic agency with which we were working that the only way we could check on the status of our application was to call the relevant federal agent on a Wednesday between 9 and noon. Needless to say, her line was often busy. But my favorite example of pointless bureaucratic obstacles was that when we re-entered the country with our new daughter, the U.S. government issued her a green card rather than a citizenship certificate, even though under U.S. law, re-entry after a two-parent foreign adoption made her a U.S. citizen. This was the agency's policy, and it didn't want to change it just because of the law. To get a citizenship certificate, we had to re-adopt our daughter under New York State law, a process that required two more home studies, another round of fingerprints, and a whole lot more paperwork.

Having dealt with other parts of the U.S. government (and various state and government agencies), I do not take the view of some conservatives that government bureaucracies are inherently callous and inefficient. For example, in many states, Departments of Motor Vehicles, long the object of scorn, have become models of customer service. But without a mandate for change, bureaucratic cultures persist, and in the case of Immigration, the only mandate that has been given to the agencies in recent years has been to be skeptical of immigrants, reinforcing an institutional culture of skepticism and callousness. Although there are good national security reasons to be careful of our borders, there is no national security justification for extending that skepticism to people already here who seek to become citizens, much less to one-year-olds.

Posted by Mike Dorf