road closed sign.jpgAs Republicans join Democrats in contemplating reform of the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system, the final line of the Pledge of Allegiance (“with liberty and justice for all”) is the best place to start. 

Revitalizing our broken and outdated 20th Century immigration laws to respond to the needs of 21st Century America will turn in large part on how we face the challenge of persuading desirable foreign citizens to make our country their home. Coveted immigrants now enjoy an array of choice locales; they are lured by the wealth, opportunity and blandishments of competitor nations throughout the developed and developing world. 

While the U.S. has long been the most preferred destination, our national rose seems to have lost much of its bloom. For too many foreigners possessing the attributes and skills we need, America may be tempting but just too risky.  We have posted a “road closed” sign when we should be cleaning off the welcome mat

Why would any intelligent person or family take a chance on America if it means that every critical step along the way raises the prospect of disrespect, insult, suspicion, delay and rejection? Those are the sorry results of our archaic and unwelcoming Immigration and Nationality Act, passed as the law of the land in the 1950s McCarthy era, modestly refreshed in 1990, but then made more draconian in 1996, and since at least the turn of the century, administered by bureaucrats who’ve too often espoused an inhospitable “culture of no.”  

America would be wise to transform our immigration laws in tangible ways that make manifest the Pledge’s promise of justice and liberty for all.  Here, then, are several suggested reforms to the immigration laws (with more to follow in future posts) that would serve us well by serving the needs of desirable immigrants:

Be more respectful and stop treating visa applicants like suspects and liars. Eliminate the presumption in current law which says that every applicant for a nonimmigrant visa is presumed to want to remain in America permanently unless s/he proves otherwise to the satisfaction of a consular officer. The presumption is jingoistic and haughty, too often counter-factual, and in any case unhelpful in that it breeds ill will among would-be entrants.  Establish clear visa-eligibility requirements that must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence (a more likely than not standard), and maintain very strict security-clearance procedures.  In addition, videotaping all visa applicants while recording the voice of the consular officer would by itself enhance our security while likely improving the behavior and courtesy of interviewing officers.  Just as Mitt Romney learned that disrespectful urgings about self-deportation insulted the Latino community, “Ugly American” consular behaviors are a turn-off to those whom we would welcome.

Eliminate consular absolutism. No one — not even someone as admired until recently as General David Petraeus — is infallible.  Yet current law says that no government official, not the President or the Secretary of State or the Attorney General or any federal judge, can correct mistaken findings of fact made by a consular officer when deciding to refuse a visa application.  Justice for all means due process for all and it means that no one, not even consular officers, are above the law.  Congress should create a means of challenging consular visa refusals and visa revocations, especially where the rights of American companies and families are adversely affected.  The review process can begin with a pilot program covering all immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas for investors and work-visa applicants, and then be expanded to cover additional categories.

Establish Due Process border protections. U.S. border inspectors at ports of entry possess extraordinary authority, including the power of expedited removal without judicial oversight, and the power to deny foreign applicants for admission, including permanent residents, all access to legal representation.  When the interests at risk in a refusal of admission are significant, and an unjust refusal adversely affects the rights of American citizens and businesses, the unregulated “third-degree” style of border enforcement must give way to the rule of law and enhanced due process protections.

Create Additional Immigration Checks and Balances. The current system of immigration justice too often fails to provide prompt and legally correct decisions.  Probably the worst offender is the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a faux-“tribunal” that has failed to fulfill its professed mission.  It is staffed by too many non-lawyers, issuing too many legally dubious and inordinately delayed decisions, without rules of court, from within the same agency (USCIS) that issued the initial decision, while denying many parties with legal interests in the outcome an opportunity to be heard or affording a means to preserve the status quo (e.g., uninterrupted employment authorization) when an appeal remains pending.  It should be moved out of the Department of Homeland Security and perhaps into the Justice Department, say to the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO) where other administrative claims under the legal immigration system are heard. 

Better yet, Congress should create a new Federal Immigration Court (FIC), styled after the Federal Bankruptcy Court and the Tax Court, to be staffed by judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution, possessing jurisdiction over all immigration law issues, in place of not just the AAO, but also the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Department of Labor’s Administrative Law Judges and Administrative Review Board, and the Federal District Courts. The FIC could also assume jurisdiction over appeals of consular visa refusals under the pilot program suggested above.

Other immigration checks and balances would entail enhancing the power of (a) the Office of the USCIS Ombudsman, by giving it the authority to overrule legally erroneous actions of USCIS, and (b) the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, by expanding beyond its authority to advise the DHS Secretary on policy changes and authorizing it to investigate and penalize violations of civil rights, civil liberties and due process.

Reassign Agency Roles.  The Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) of USCIS has no place in an agency charged with conferring immigration benefits on deserving petitioners and applicants.  FDNS should be moved into U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) because the missions of FDNS and ICE are hand-in-glove aligned and ICE has established a variety of due process protections which, alas, FDNS now routinely ignores (like prior notice to counsel of client site visits). Similarly, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration should be ordered by Congress to cease its wasteful and duplicitous labor market testing process known as “labor certification.”  Instead, the Bureau of Labor Statistics should be instructed to publish lists of shortage occupations based on data collected nationally, and prospective employers should be allowed to petition for foreign workers based on the shortage lists.  Employers should also be allowed to petition for inclusion of new or omitted occupations on the lists based on a regulations proposed for public comment and finalized under the Administrative Procedure Act.

Expand or Eliminate Work- and Investor-Visa Quotas. Numerous studies have shown that employment-based immigration promotes economic growth and opportunity in the importing nation and — through remittances sent back home — in the exporting nation as well.  Why then should there be a quota on economic growth?  The only conceivable situation is where growth creates tangible problems that are proven to override the economic benefits of employment-based immigration.  Our current immigration system, however, pulls quota numbers out of thin air, without regard to any published financial or demographic metrics.  Take for example the H-1B visa quota which is now set at 85,000 but has ranged from 65,000 to close to 200,000 since its imposition in 1990, and it is Swiss-cheesed with exemptions for Chileans, Singaporeans, Australians and other privileged classes.  The history of the program has shown that the quota is inadequate when market demand for foreign workers is high and unnecessary when demand is low.  So, why have a quota on “smart people” (as business leader and philanthropist Bill Gates has asked)?

Establish uniform privileges across all work visa categories.  There is no reason why spouses of E, J-1 and L-1 visa holders are allowed to work and spouses of other visa holders are prohibited.  If promoting dual-career households is a public good, then make the opportunity available uniformly for all work visa categories.  There is likewise no reason why H-1B, H-4, L-1 and L-2 visa holders can travel abroad and reenter on their visas without being deemed to have abandoned their green-card applications, while applicants in other visa categories applying for green cards must re-apply if they leave and return.  Nor is it logical that H-1B visa holders have “portability” of benefits when they change employers and can extend their cumulative stay beyond the usual multi-year maximum if they pursue a green card but other work visa holders are denied these privileges.  And the mother of all illogical immigration notions — the presumed intent of a nonimmigrant visa applicant to immigrate unless the contrary is proven — should be just as inapplicable to all visa categories as it is to a few (such as the H-1B, L-1 and O-1 visas).

Promote Immigration Transparency and Accountability. The immigration stakeholder community has no way to identify adjudicators who consistently misinterpret the law, misunderstand basic business concepts, defy headquarters directives or ignore judicial precedents.  Unlike Immigration Judges whose patterns of decisions are trackable, immigration decision-makers do not affix their name or a tracking number to their decisions. These bad apples taint the rest of the produce in the barrel and bring disrepute on the system.  Personnel laws administered behind the scenes are not enough to deter incompetence or insubordination.  Congress should mandate a system of transparency and accountability that allows the public to monitor and protest malfeasant and miscreant behaviors among immigration adjudicators. 

Promote entrepreneurship and investment.  Congress should promote economic pragmatism and eliminate the current bars that prevent working owners, entrepreneurs and investors from immigrating to the United States. It should allow a greater measure of “free-agency” for talented foreign nationals rather than permit pre-arranged employer sponsorship as the sole or primary vehicle for business-related immigration benefits.  It should also streamline the EB-5 program so that adjudicators are not allowed to demand rail-car loads of irrelevant paper based on ever-changing and novel interpretations of legal requirements.  It should allow for the creation of a Founders or Start-Up Visa.  It should confer immigration benefits on investors in residential or commercial real estate.  It should establish a race-to-the-top competition which would confer to states proposing innovative commercial, business, artistic or scientific projects the right to grant a share of work visas and green cards to the most promising foreign applicants. And it should foster worthy pilot immigration projects targeted to solving big problems.

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welcome_mat2.jpgThese suggestions for a more welcoming immigration system receive little attention from the press and politicians who focus on border and interior enforcement, a path to citizenship for the undocumented and future flows of immigrant workers. 

While the problems the politicos and pundits identify require a solution, America will still fail to create a 21st Century immigration system unless it takes aggressive steps to welcome the world’s most desirable immigrants.