In times of economic stress, people turn to rituals. Some finger rosaries or worry beads. Other folks, as the Wall St. Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger reminds us (“Life Stories: Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales” [3/12/09, p. D1]), revert to an age-old tradition, the passing on to the next generation of family stories about earlier ancestors suffering and (sometimes) transcending hardship.

In the immigration legal community, we too have our ceremonies. Every year, invariably as winter turns to spring, we behave ritualistically. We try to soothe anxious employers and would-be workers from abroad as we prepare their H-1B visa petitions. On the eve of every April Fools Day, we pray or cross our fingers and then consign (to Federal Express and other overnight couriers) precious packages, addressed to USCIS, containing our clients’ hopes and dreams of futures soon to be revealed. Just as Boomer males awaited their individual futures in the draft-era lottery, foreign students and prospective workers stand by their mailboxes for the results of the H-1B lottery.

Another immigration ritual with perhaps just as much riding on the outcome occurs in the second week of every month as immigrant hopefuls await publication of the State Department’s Visa Bulletin. The raw news of the monthly cutoff dates in family and employment-based preference categories is scanned by mostly crestfallen readers who see backlogs that pose formidable barriers to the American Dream. Just as important is the agency’s prediction of future movement of cutoff dates that determine career and life outcomes. The latest Bulletin captured the modern-day zeitgeist of dysfunctional immigration policies in doubletalk that would rival the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984:

Despite the established cut-off date having been held for the past five months in an effort to keep demand within the average monthly usage targets, the amount of demand being received from Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) Offices for adjustment of status cases remains extremely high. Therefore, it has been necessary to retrogress the April cut-off dates in an attempt to hold demand within the FY-2009 annual limit. Since over 60 percent of the Worldwide and Philippines Employment Third preference CIS demand received this year has been for applicants with priority dates prior to January 1, 2004, the cut-off date has been retrogressed to 01MAR03 to help ensure that the amount of future demand is significantly reduced. As indicated in the last sentence of Item A, paragraph 1, of this bulletin, this cut-off date will be applied immediately. It should also be noted that further retrogression or “unavailability” at any time cannot be ruled out. It has also been necessary to retrogress the Employment Third Preference Other Worker cut-off date for all countries in order to hold the issuance level within the annual limit. [Bolding and italics added.]

The highlighted sentence is as pregnant (with meaning) as Octomom (with offspring) before she entered the birthing room. To immigration cognoscenti, including legions of frustrated men- and ladies-in-waiting from abroad, the message is clear. Expect to maintain a state of suspended animation for several years before your energy and ideas can be put to productive use. Or as George Carlin said, “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Our government, and a somnolent public, must recognize that these foreign strivers will not wait forever. They will not entrust their fate to the headless horsemen of America’s current immigration system. As Vivek Wadhwa and his collagues have shown, they will simply follow a lifelong ritual. They will take their minds, energy and talents and go home, “the place,” as Robert Frost reminds us, “where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”