Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Testimonial of US Immigration Policy Failure

Here is a letter written and mailed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS), and cc'd to NY Congressman Maurice Hinchey. "Policy" being a misnomer here.

I am filing a complaint for the abuse and impoverishment my husband and I have endured for four years under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security and its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services unit. I may write in hyperbole but not in jest. This certainly is more than a mere complaint; I am reporting concrete examples of incompetence, non-transparency and discrimination.

I am an American citizen and have been reduced to a second-class citizen after marrying a third-class citizen of the globe from the ‘developing world’. I am a Ph.D. student and my program required me to complete my coursework and examinations at my university. My then fiancé came to join me in the United States because of this obligation. I then took up a research project abroad and wanting to live together, my husband joined me. Being a student and my husband being a new resident of the US, we lived on a limited income and now living abroad I live on an even more meager budget. Throughout these four years – from filing the fiancé petition to the current reentry permit application – we have spent thousands of dollars just to be together as a married couple and for me to be able to stay in my Ph.D. program. We have faced many unknowns as to his residency and work status in the country, in addition to continued indebtedness, sizable periods of unemployment and months (and months) of separation.

When we were living abroad this year, my husband had to apply for the removal of conditions on his residence (I-751 Petition). On the I-751 Petition is written under “What Is the Filing Fee?” that:
“If you live outside the United States, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, contact the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy for instructions on the method of payment.”

I tried contacting the U.S. Embassy in Egypt (where we reside) for instructions on payment, but because of the limited staff at the Embassy, I did not get a definitive response to my inquiry until months later. (I called them, they told me to email them. I emailed them and never got a response. I called them again and couldn’t get through. This continued after numerous attempts to get through. Finally I got through and was told the same thing: email them. Why? Because they do not have any personnel on staff who can answer the question. When I finally received a response, it was that the Embassy in Egypt cannot handle this request.) I called USCIS to find out what in fact our options were. There were none. So how were we to pay the very large $545.00 fee when we were making money in Egyptian Pounds -- $545 being nearly equivalent to a month’s pay here? We had to borrow the money. And we had wasted much time finding out about an nonexistent service that the US Department of Homeland Security claims to provide.

Before my husband returned to the US this summer for removing the conditions on his residency, we checked and double checked what the requirements would be before he returned to Egypt. We did our research, sought free legal advice and decided that the best option would be for him to petition for a reentry permit. We knew that we needed $305 for the reentry permit and that it needed to be filed before he left the country. This must have been in May-June. Then, a few weeks ago we got ready to file the I-131 Form (for reentry) and noticed to our dismay that another requirement was added to the form. According to USCIS's Office of Communications memo (dated June 30, 2009), effective immediately is a biometrics requirement for all reentry permit applicants (see http://www.uscis.gov/files/article/I-131_QA.pdf).

This means that not only do we have to pay another $80, but my husband, without a car, needs to take nearly a whole day off work and to pay the roundtrip bus fare in order to get to the immigration office for the appointment. Further, he has to pay the airline to delay his departure from the country because of the setting of the biometrics appointment. The USCIS memo warns applicants to apply for the permit well in advance of their travelling date…that’s fine and well, but excuse me, I did not realize that we were required to check and recheck the USCIS website for any random ruling on their part that directly affects our life, our marriage and our well-being! After all, no one sent us an email memo telling us of this change that went into effect immediately.

This is one telltale sign of the Department’s total lack of transparency. Public administrations are built to serve the public, not to reign arbitrarily over them. When a new ruling is made it would be prudent of the Department at minimum to announce this and make it effective the following year, not immediately. It is a further nonsensical requirement. When my husband has called USCIS to request permission to not take the biometrics since he just did a month ago, he is met with rigidity. What sense is it to take two biometrics exams within a two-month period?

And are there any options for low-income people like us? There are no options for the applications, although a fee waiver is made available for the biometrics appointment. The waiver is made so unappealing, however, as to make it practically unavailable. If one applies and the waiver is rejected, the applicant must start from the beginning. Having to start over again with the application would cost us more financially and emotionally than the waiver could possibly offer.

At the very least, free bus rides to and from the immigration offices should be made available. At the very least, we should expect our government agencies to take a stand against the widespread societal discrimination against and marginalization of those reliant on public transportation.

But this complaint is a testimonial to the failures of a privatization agenda that has stripped public agencies of staff, adequate services and deliberate decision-making. The enormous fees of these services has left me feeling I am dealing with a private enterprise, but I know that in the context of a flattened public sector the costs are born more and more by private citizens like myself. Paying an arm and a leg just to be in a marriage to a non-US citizen and to have continued access as a married couple to my country of birth causes me much frustration, anger and sadness.

I wish that all citizens demand that our public agencies serve the public and all therein fairly – not just those who fall within chosen categories. The recent immigration policies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security have surely and steadily damaged US citizens and their families, and it is with my personal complaint that I provide a corroborative account of immigration policy failures.

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