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Kafka comes to the visa office

Paul Alper points us to this news article by Catherine Rampell about “a Kafkaesque new processing policy for select categories of visas”:

If any fields on a form are left blank, it will automatically be rejected. Even if it makes no sense for the applicant to fill out that field. For example, if “Apt. Number” is left blank because the immigrant lives in a house: rejected. Or if the field for a middle name is left blank because no middle name exists: rejected, too. . . .

It’s hard not to see this as a preposterous new layer of red tape designed to deny visas to legally eligible applicants . . .

The policy change, at first affecting just asylum applicants, was announced without fanfare on the USCIS website sometime in the fall. “We will not accept your [application] if you leave any fields blank,” reads a note you wouldn’t know existed unless someone told you where to find it. “You must provide a response to all questions on the form, even if the response is ‘none,’ ‘unknown’ or ‘n/a.’ ”

Then, days before the New Year, USCIS added a similar notice for U-visa applications. In both cases the processing changes were effective immediately — even if documents had been mailed in before the policy was announced.

That’s the truly Kafkaesque touch.

Rampell continues with the story of the rejected visa applicant:

To be clear, the absence of a son’s middle name wasn’t the only blank on her application. As many attorneys told me has always been common practice, she also left other fields unfilled if they didn’t apply.

For example, she checked the boxes saying each of her sons is “single.” A subsequent section says: “If your family member was previously married, list the names of your family member’s prior spouses and the dates his or her marriages were terminated.” Because no “prior spouses” exist, she didn’t enter anything; USCIS cited this, too, among the reasons for rejection. . . .

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has collected 140 other examples of allegedly “incomplete” forms: an 8-year-old child who listed “none” for employment history but left the dates of employment field blank. An applicant who entered names of three siblings, but the form has spaces for four. . . .

My dad had no middle initial. He said that in the army everyone had to have a middle initial, so he was Robert N.M.I. Gelman on all the official forms. They didn’t deport him, though; fortunately his parents came to the United States many years before the restrictive immigration law.

27 Comments

  1. Funko says:

    N.M.I. as in No Middle Initial?

  2. One wonders, does anyone actually *defend* something this awful, or is the bureaucracy so faceless that no one ever has to?

    (I don’t have a middle name, or an apartment number…)

    • Michael J says:

      Do you think it’s more likely that this is incompetence or active maliciousness? If it’s the latter then yeah there (unfortunately) would be a lot of people defending this because it’s basically a legal loophole to reject visas. And there are certainly quite a few people in this country that really really do not like immigrants.

    • Anon says:

      It makes sense if you analyze it from a strict consequentialist perspective. The administration wants lower immigration, but since they don’t have control of Congress, they can’t pass any laws about it.

      From that perspective, I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who defend it on the basis of their personal dislike of immigration.

    • Rahul says:

      Here’s one part I never get: Let’s assume that I was a xenophobic policy maker or for self-interest had a real interest in reducing immigration drastically.

      How does it make sense to use arbitrary, or trivial criteria to throttle the flow? Wouldn’t you want to use something more “substantive” (even if evil)? e.g. Say Income, education, white-ness, IQ etc.

      A lot of the US immigration policies seem more stupid rather than evil. How does selecting on a missing “apt no.” help even an anti-immigration viewpoint?

      • Michael says:

        Well incomplete applications are automatic rejections, right? So a policy like this means more rejected visas = anti-immigration. And it’s also something that is at a minimum a legal grey area and plausibly something that could slip under the radar. If these people only care about throttling the flow, one can argue that trivial criteria is the best way to do it. And as Phil said below, it may very well be a mix of incompetence and malice.

  3. jim says:

    just one more reason for the 99% outcome.

  4. Any independent corroboration of this story? It sounds plausible, unfortunately, but I don’t consider the WaPo a very reliable news source. I’d like to make sure I’m on solid ground before I pass this on.

      • jim says:

        From Kevin’s link:

        “Optional fields include the safe mailing address as well as fields you should only complete if you answered yes to a previous question. “

        From Andrew’s post:

        “For example, she checked the boxes saying each of her sons is “single.” A subsequent section says: “If your family member was previously married, list the names of your family member’s prior spouses and the dates his or her marriages were terminated.” Because no “prior spouses” exist, she didn’t enter anything; USCIS cited this, too, among the reasons for rejection. . . .”

        • Jacob Steinhardt says:

          The link also says this: “We will reject a Form I-918 or a Form I-918A that has, for example, an empty field for middle name, for current immigration status or for information pertaining to a spouse or child.”

          My current tentative take is that the article is somewhat misleading but not as much as jim’s quote makes it out to be. But I’d be interested in further information or context. What’s most weird to me is that it’s published in the opinion section but reads as a more investigative piece (maybe I don’t understand how newspapers work?).

        • Zhou Fang says:

          She said her sons are single, not married. She did not answer a yes or no question.

          • Jackson Monroe says:

            “Optional fields include the safe mailing address as well as fields you should only complete if you answered yes to a previous question.”

            A list of shapes includes circles and squares, are triangles not shapes? It is not by its own text an exclusive list, it says that optional fields, which include certain categories, don’t need to be filled out. Clearly a field that is dependent on another field’s answer is optional, the option turns on whether or not her sons were previously married. It is a capricious rule that is being enforced arbitrarily because they determined the fields that are not on the inclusive list, but fall within the description of what may be left blank may not be left blank.

  5. Peter Dorman says:

    Crazy. But I can’t help but wonder: is there an economic side to this? Do wealthy applicants have their forms filled out by legal staff or other paid specialists, who can be relied on to follow any ridiculous rule the government imposes, while everyone else does it themselves? Is that a paranoid speculation?

  6. Adede says:

    This sounds like a recipe for disaster if someone’s middle initials are actually NA, etc.

  7. paul alper says:

    I was drawn to Rampell’s article because I have always felt deprived in not having a middle name. In fact, no one in my family–father, mother, brother–had/has a middle name. Ditto my wife. The joke was that we were too poor to afford a middle name. However, on various websites where it is possible to find my criminal record and phone number, I somehow have acquired a middle initial,”T”. Why and how this happened is a mystery lost in cyberspace.
    In letters and emails to my daughter, who does have a middle name, I sign off with “Dqd” in memory of frustrations with French keyboards.

  8. Nick Patterson says:

    40 years ago I was applying for a green card. The key form began with a classic:

    Answer all questions.
    Do not answer question 3.

    This is of course ideal. All applicants will fail to follow the simple instructions.

  9. Phil says:

    It looks like the policy on the USCIS website is being misapplied…but _also_ that the policy is stupid, arbitrary, and subject to misinterpretation.

    As described on the website, “We may reject your Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status; Form I-918, Supplement A, Petition for a Qualifying Family Member of a U Nonimmigrant; and Form I-918 Supplement B, U Nonimmigrant Status Certification; if you leave a field blank, unless the field is optional. Optional fields include the safe mailing address as well as fields you should only complete if you answered yes to a previous question. You must provide a response to all other questions, even if the response is “none,” “unknown” or “n/a.” We will reject a Form I-918 or a Form I-918A that has, for example, an empty field for middle name, for current immigration status or for information pertaining to a spouse or child.”

    It’s not clear to me whether there is an indication on the form for which fields are ‘optional’. Is “Apartment number” optional or required? It is utterly stupid to require it, since not everyone lives in an apartment. But if it’s clearly indicated that it is ‘required’ then at least one is clued in to write something there.

    It seems clear that if you have no employment history, you should not be required to fill in anything for dates of employment (since “Optional fields include the safe mailing address as well as fields you should only complete if you answered yes to a previous question.”). But I don’t doubt that applications have been rejected for this reason, either by mistake or by ‘mistake’, as claimed. Indeed, this may have been set up for failure, especially if some of the rejection is done by machine. For instance, what happens if you declare your marital status as ‘single’ and fill in ‘none’ for “Spouse’s name”, but don’t give an address for “Spouse.” The “Spouse’s name” field is non-empty, which, depending on how the system is set up, may result in automatic rejection if there is no address for ‘Spouse’.

    In another time, I would invoke the rule of thumb that one should never attribute to malice something that can be explained by incompetence. But incompetence and malice are not mutually exclusive, and in the present times and circumstances I think the smart money is on “why not both?”

  10. paul alper says:

    I tried posting this comment earlier but somehow it never made it through the filtering:
    Middle names fascinate me because I do not have one. Same goes for my mother, father and brother; we were too poor to afford a middle name. However, a web search via organizations which can spot if you have a criminal past will indicate that my middle initial is “T”. How the “T” got there, like many things in cyberspace, is a mystery.

    • Peter Erwin says:

      I knew someone in the early 1990s who was curious about how mailing lists were organized (he was in advertising), so whenever he subscribed to a new magazine he would use a different (made-up) middle initial. That way, when he got junk mail, he could have an idea of how the junk mailers got his name and address based on which middle initial they thought he had. (“Ah, they’re using ‘K’, so they must have got their list from Sports Illustrated“, etc.)

  11. jonathan says:

    I’d bet they’re applying a machine rejection, perhaps because their systems are not very good, perhaps because they want to slow the flow, perhaps for both reasons. My small experience with government computer processing systems is they can be primitive.

    My mother was in kindergarten before she learned her name was Leah. No one called her that. It was her middle name except she didnt have one, just the initial B with no period. They were told they needed to have a middle name or initial back in 1933, so they picked B. She told me the teacher repeatedly called Leah, and then came over to my mom to ask why she didnt respond.

  12. David S Sholl says:

    There are multiple Brazilian soccer players in Major League Soccer (and probably elsewhere) who only have one name. I have always wondered how they fill out forms when arriving in a new country.

  13. Martha (Smith) says:

    Found on the web:

    “YOU WORK FOR THE GOVERNMENT IF…

    ·You understand the rationalization of an acronym comprised of acronyms.
    ·You can name the project leader of more than 10 projects including your own, but still can’t explain in the simplest terms what they do.
    ·You work for an acronym, on an acronym, and your job title is an acronym.
    ·You’ve sat at the same desk for 3 years, done the same thing for 3 years, but have had 3 different business cards.
    ·You don’t see anything wrong with attending a meeting on a subject you know nothing about.
    ·You feel you contributed to the meeting just by being there.”

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