Over the 4th of July weekend, I devoured a fascinating book and, in the course of it, learned a new synonym for “bureaucracy” – “cutcherry” — taken from Hindi and apparently originating with the British East-India Company’s bureau office in what is now Chennai.
The book, The Professor and the Madman ~ A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester, describes the unusual literary collaboration between Professor James Murray, who led most of the 70-year effort to compile the Oxford English Dictionary, and an American, Dr. William Chester Minor, acquitted of murder by reason of insanity and held for decades in a British asylum for the mentally ill. Dr. Minor was among the most prolific and insightful contributors to the OED, as this passage shows:
And yet as came the madness, so came the words. Many of those that fascinated him were Anglo -Indian, reflecting his birthplace: There were bhang, brinjal, catamaran, cholera, chunnam, and cutcherry. He liked brick-tea. By the time of the middle 1890s he became very active working on the letter D, and though there are some Hindustani words like dubash, dubba, and dhobi, he was interested also in what were regarded as the core words of the dictionary— and contributions of quotations are in the Oxford archives for such words as delicately, directly, dirt, disquiet, drink, duty, and dye. He was able more often than not to supply the quotation for the first use of a word— always an occasion for celebration.
For years Prof. Murray and his staff were astounded at the time and energy their contributor, Dr. Minor, devoted to the OED. They assumed that he was retired and did not know that his abundance of effort was a daytime remedy to keep at bay the psychological demons who assailed him at night.
Often it seems that our own immigration cutcherry, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), labors with the energy and effort of a Dr. Minor and the vast army of co-contributors who helped Prof. Murray compile the OED. Public outreach and engagements, both nationally and locally, are announced with great frequency, not just in English, but also in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Spanish.
The frequency and quality of these engagements are a testament to the man who introduced them, Alejandro Mayorkas, the USCIS Director the past four years. Director Mayorkas, himself an immigrant from Cuba, has made great strides in transforming the world’s largest immigration agency, a cutcherry so plagued when he arrived that it became apparent to him that his first order of business was to instruct his staff to compile a list of all extant immigration policies and canvass the public about which agency practices and interpretations should be reassessed first.
An example of his leadership can be seen in two recent policy memos published last week with an invitation for the public to comment: Interim Policy Memorandum: PM-602-0086 Precedent and Non-Precedent Decisions of the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) and Final Policy Memorandum: PM-602-0087 Certification of Decisions to the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO).
Director Mayorkas spoke movingly of his immigrant roots, his accomplishments and his vision for the future of USCIS at what may have been his valedictory address at the American Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference in San Francisco last month, receiving a heartfelt standing ovation, rather than the usually perfunctory applause, from a too-often jaundiced immigration bar. On June 27, President Obama announced his attention to nominate Director Mayorkas to serve as the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, under Janet Napolitano, who likewise applauded the announcement.
Earlier last month, he also spoke at the annual symposium of the American Council for International Personnel, where a questioner asked how USCIS could possibly assemble the infrastructure and legions of personnel needed if comprehensive immigration reform with its innumerable changes to visa categories and a registered provisional immigrant category and prospect of citizenship for the 11 million or so unauthorized persons among us were to pass. He responded in reasonable granularity and then ended his answer confidently with: “We will be ready!”
I’ve not always agreed with Director Mayorkas, as more than a few posts on this blog will attest. For example, while the AAO has improved in speed and quality of adjudication in recent months, it remains afflicted by antiquated processes and too often exhibits faux rather than full-fledged justice that will not be remedied by the mere issuance of two policy memos, as I’ve noted before (here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). See my listing of “25 Proposed Reforms to the Administrative Appellate Process within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.” (By the way, in reading the two new policy memos, I am reminded of one more reform — USCIS should allow the public to recommend non-precededent AAO decisions as the Board of Immigration Appeals has done, see, e.g., Matter of Walsh and Pollard, which the BIA designated as precedent as the request of James Stillwaggon and yours truly many years ago.)
Yet I’ve long admired Director Mayorkas for his sincerity, diligence, commitment, intelligence, elocution, rhetorical flourishes and wit. He has faced his challenges from within and without, and addressed them with his resolute energy and drive, never losing sight of his oath of office and the people his agency helps and protects. Our consolation as immigration stakeholders is that once he leaves he’ll likely not forget his experiences at USCIS and with the larger community, and apply his learning and insight to address the even more daunting problems faced by the Homeland Security Department, of which immigration is only one component. Godspeed, Ali Mayorkas. We will miss you but never forget you.