The Great Depression profoundly affected the psyche of the American people, just as today’s Great Recession spawns untold emotional harm that will last for generations. Like a toxic seed, the Depression planted itself deeply into the emotional minds of those who lived through it, only to be transmitted from generation to generation, as parents told their children of hardships endured and shame swallowed. I know that it affected me long after my mother shuffled off her mortal coil. As a child, I listened intently to one of her remembrances — the humiliation she felt in receiving free shoes as a Christmas present from the local welfare agency. It was not the gift of the shoes so much that troubled her but the fact that they were rugged, high-top shoes, resembling combat boots, that she feared would signal to her friends at school her family’s acceptance of welfare.

The current Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Alejandro Mayorkas, offers a similar story of penury recounted decades later in the agency’s new blog:

About twenty years ago I visited my great aunt and uncle in their apartment in Brooklyn where they had settled after emigrating from Cuba. They had prepared a sandwich for me wrapped in a neatly-cut square of wax paper. After lunch my great aunt took the wax-paper square, ironed the creases with her hand, and placed the flattened square on a stack of wax paper squares resting atop her refrigerator. My great aunt and uncle understood the value of each cent and the struggle it took to earn it.

For no particular reason I can fathom, these stories got me to thinking of a famous quote about money attributed to Jesse Unruh, former Speaker of the California State Assembly: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Although Mr. Unruh was referring to campaign contributions, the same can be said about the greenback’s effect on America’s immigration system.

Last year, I described in harsh terms what I saw was the unwise expenditure of money at USCIS in the pre-Mayorkas period. Now it’s time to examine it from another perspective, like the one espoused by the American Council for International Personnel (ACIP):


USCIS currently processes around seven million cases annually. This $2+ billion a year in fee revenue barely covers the costs to process USCIS’ current caseload, leaving little additional money for non-fee services, such as transformation efforts, infrastructure, and asylum and refugee programs. This budget gap is exacerbated by a lag time between the receipt of fees and fee availability to cover costs. For fiscal year 2010, USCIS is expected to generate around $2.4 billion in fee revenue and will receive just $224 million in appropriations. The President’s fiscal year 2011 budget request includes an increase of $158 million in appropriations for USCIS, but most of this money is tagged for immigrant integration and verification programs, such as E-Verify.

Mr. Mayorkas made a similar point this week in testimony before the House Appropriation Committee (Subcommittee on Homeland Security):

USCIS has significant challenges that it is working to overcome. The most immediate is a drop in fee revenue. . . . I am committed to maintaining a strong focus on improving our performance in all program areas even in the face of fiscal challenges. We must be more efficient out of respect for the customers who pay fees and the taxpayers who support our operations. USCIS activities must be more transparent than they have in the past, and we need to work closely with our stakeholders and the public to deliver the customer service and immigration benefits that we expect and our customers deserve.

He also thanked the Subcommittee for approving “surcharge reductions” and appropriating funds to relieve businesses and individuals requesting immigration benefits who had been required to pay user fees that included unfair and burdensome (my words) subsidies for the cost of administering America’s (wholly worthy) asylum and refugee programs.

Another intelligent use of appropriated funds can be seen in Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s announcement on the Fox News program, the O’Reilly Factor,

[Bill] O’REILLY: Thank you. Today in The New York Times, they report that the Virtual Border Funding is going to be shut down because the virtual border, which is the electronic gizmo stuff is a total waste of time, not doing anything. You, as a former governor of Arizona, know that very well. Is that true? Did we waste a billion dollars on this thing?

[Secretary] NAPOLITANO: Well, we’re not going to spend any more money on it until we know it works. And what we’re doing is moving money that had been appropriated for that technology we know our agents can use at the border right now.

Secretary Napolitano would be wise to set aside for USCIS some of the $50 million in stimulus funds to be spent on the “electronic gizmo stuff” — the folly of a virtual fence — that the OMB confirms in its full report has been ill-conceived from the start:

SBInet [virtual fence] testing has not been adequately managed, as illustrated by poorly defined test plans and numerous and extensive last-minute changes to test procedures. Further, testing that has been performed identified a growing number of system performance and quality problems–a trend that is not indicative of a maturing system that is ready for deployment anytime soon. Further, while some of these problems have been significant, the collective magnitude of the problems is not clear because they have not been prioritized, user reactions to the system continue to raise concerns, and key test events remain to be conducted. Collectively, these limitations increase the risk that the system will ultimately not perform as expected and will take longer and cost more than necessary to implement. For DHS to increase its chances of delivering a version of SBInet for operational use, we are recommending that DHS improve the planning and execution of future test events and the resolution and disclosure of system problems. DHS agreed with our recommendations.

What we “know . . . works” is the end product of our immigration system. What works is to produce “Outstanding Americans by Choice” — something that, within our system of laws, only USCIS can do. As Congress considers appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security, and as momentum builds for “a tough but fair path forward” to regularize the status of 11 million undocumented humans in this country, the time has come to pay the freight and to invest wisely in our nation of immigrants.

As I struggle even today to come to grips with my family’s emotional trauma from their lack of money while experiencing the immigrants’ dream in America, the wisdom of Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in Your Money or Your Life comes to mind. They conclude that money is a substitute for “life energy.”

I’ve never spoken with Mr. Mayorkas about the emotional side of money, but I suspect from his observation below that he would agree with authors Joe and Vicki about its power to produce life energy:

I came to this country in 1960, my family having fled Cuba so that my sister and I, and later my brothers, could realize the promise of democracy. I am forever mindful of the journey we made and the challenges it involved. The wax paper atop my great aunt’s refrigerator is a lasting symbol, one that guides me as we at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services make the journey possible for others and help define our nation in that spirit.