Part 2: The other kind of immigration reform

It took a little longer than I expected, but here’s part 2 to the rant I began on immigration earlier in the week. First, though, a little aside about another faulty claim my debate team made:

I know that we said this mostly in jest, but a water free toilet is NOT a waste of money. In fact, I’ve come to believe it may be one of the most important technological breakthroughs in the 21st century. Imagine all the water we could save if every flush was waterless. If we can efficiently and cleanly remove waste without utilizing precious fresh water, we could go a long way in reducing water shortages and save the stuff for the really important things: drinking, cooking, cleaning.

Now back to the main topic of conversation. Last time I whined a lot about flaws in the system but what about solutions? Obviously I don’t have all the answers and I think it will always be an imperfect process. However, the system can be improved. For those who wonder how a massive nationwide selection process can possibly be efficient, I point to the college application process. Each year, American colleges and universities receive millions of applications from across the country and all over the world. Boston College alone got nearly 30,000 applications last year. Applicants come from a variety of backgrounds with various credentials. Yet somehow they still manage to read all these applications and make their decisions in about 4 months for just $70 per application. Compare that to an average of 9 months for $675. Yeah I think the USCIS has some work to do. Here are some specific changes I can see:

The easiest step would be to allow electronic filing the way most colleges allow. Right now, the USCIS lets you fill out your forms online but you must print it out and mail it in. It should take next to no effort on their part to allow electronic filing. Such an option would save paper and allow for easier transfers between different offices. Cloud computing is the way of the future. Why does the government continuously insist on operating in the pre-electronic era?

The government can also use its website to help applicants answer questions and track their progress. Whenever I log onto Bank of America, a chat window is always popping up for me to speak with a customer service representative. I understand this may be a little much for the government, but at least give us an email address! Right now a 1800 number and mail are the only ways to get in touch with them. Additionally, the USCIS should allow occasional online tracking to see where your application is and what the approximate time frames are. If I can track my pizza order online, why not my naturalization application? Currently the USCIS home pages says a redesign is coming soon. I hope there are substantial improvements and not just a new logo and color scheme.

Another idea would be to remedy the pathetic excuse for a test currently given to naturalization applicants. I agree new citizens should be required to have some knowledge of English and civics, but this is a joke for people like me who have grown up here. How about this: let’s create some kind of exemption for people like myself who have gone through the American education system and graduated with a high school diploma. These tests are a joke and any high school graduate should be able to pass it without trouble. That is unless the American education system isn’t preparing kids sufficiently in civics or heaven forbid English to pass these tests. Then I would say there’s a bigger problem at stake.

The actual swearing in process could be better too. The ceremony is nice and I realize you want to make it a special moment. However, given the backlog in getting ceremonies scheduled and the urgency of some people’s schedules, the government should allow an express option. Just like there’s a legal and traditional ceremony to a wedding, there should likewise be two components to the swearing in process. The legal part should be a quick, no frills process that legally makes you a citizen. The traditional ceremony, with the dressing up and music should be optional for those who want a fancy photo op. This way, people on tight schedules can become citizens without having to wait long periods of time or sit through a drawn out ceremony.

Reform on this topic should be easy to pass. We are, after all, talking about honest, legitimate immigrants who have already been screened and most likely have something valuable to contribute to society. Sadly, this type of reform will probably not happen because there is little political urgency. Legal immigrants will become citizens sooner or later. Immigrants do not have the right to vote and unlike illegal immigration, there’s little glory in taking a strong position. I only hope one day our politicians wake up and start doing the right thing.

Despite everything I’ve said in the past 2 posts, the U.S. government is not the most inefficient I have had to deal with recently. That distinction goes to the British. Since I am going to London for a full year, I have to get a student visa. The UK has three offices in the U.S. that process visa applications in New York City, Chicago, and LA. Each office handles a certain region. Guess what region PA belongs to? Not New York, not Chicago, but LA! Instead of taking a 2 hour bus ride to New York to get everything done in person, I had to mail my application to LA. As of this writing I’m still waiting for a response!

Look, I know you guys never made it out to California when you ruled the U.S., but come on! Look at a map! It makes absolutely no logical sense!

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Part 1: The problem with citizenship

Okay, time for a little ranting. Both of these relate back to arguments that my team and I made in debate my senior year of high school (Resolved: government should give illegal immigrants health care).

First and most importantly, one of the bedrocks of our argument rested on the idea that citizenship was a quick, fair, and easy way to enjoy the benefits of being an American. Having now gone through the entire naturalization process, I can safely say the benefits of citizenship are true, but the adjectives in the previous statements are as far from the truth as possible. This brings me to an issue that I suddenly care a lot about: legal immigration reform.

(I won’t get into issues about visas. I think Sarah Lacy of TechCrunch wrote an excellent argument explaining the problem with the H-1B visa. Instead, I’ll focus on the long, confusing, and costly process that awaits legal immigrants once they have decided to stay in this country for good. I draw largely on my own experiences, but I’m sure others have experienced similar headaches.)

First, becoming a citizen is a costly matter. Filing to become a permanent resident (a necessary step to becoming a full citizen) currently costs $930 plus $80 for biometrics. Filing to naturalization costs $595 plus $80 for biometrics. That’s $1,685 per person. Thankfully my family is in a stable financial situation, but it’s not hard to imagine a lower income family with several members up for naturalization struggling to come up with that much cash at once. This also does not include travel expenses (only a few major cities have processing facilities) and lost wage opportunities (most business is naturally conducted during business hours). I understand employing the people and equipment to support the process requires money, but immigrant families should not have to face a financial hardship to become a citizen.

This gets into the next flaw of the naturalization process: it is extremely inflexible. Once you send in your application, you’re tied to a processing center based on your home address. This was a big problem for me because as a college student I spend most of my time away from home. Therefore, even though I live in Pennsylvania, it is much easier for me to go to appointments in Boston. The USCIS (the organization which handles the naturalization process) apparently has trouble understanding this because I communicated this to them on multiple occasions but they continuously scheduled my appointments in Philadelphia. Each time I had to reschedule and delay the process. As a result, I was unable to complete the process before France and barely made it for London. I can’t be the only one with this problem. College students frequently go to school in a different state and professionals often travel for work to different parts of the country. Tying applications to a geography is an archaic system that harkens back to an era when everything was done by paper and few people traveled. The advent of computer records should make transferring an application from one city to another as easy as the stroke of a button.

This shouldn’t be unexpected though given the USCIS’s inept use of technology. It does not allow for electronic filing and the only way to contact customer service is through a 1800 hotline. They could easily add a live chat function to answer quick questions online and utilize email to communicate important updates and deadlines. Instead, USCIS forces all communications through the mail as if we’re still using the Pony Express (maybe they’re colluding to keep the Post Office afloat). The online “Check Case Status” feature is likewise useless. It merely tells you that your application is “pending.” No crap.

The immigration test itself is a joke. The so-called interview is nothing more than an immigration officer reading your application back to you and asking you if it’s correct. The “English test” involves reading and writing a first grade sentence (mine was something along the lines of “I live in the US.”) No offense to the nice lady that administered my test, but there is something seriously wrong when I have a far greater mastery of the English language than the person administering my “English test.” That does not compare with the civics test though. You get randomly asked several questions that theoretically every American should know. These are things like “Name our current president” or “Name one of this state’s senators” or “What are the three branches of government?” At the risk of sounding arrogant again, I got a freaking 5 on the AP US History test and took AP Government in high school. I know this stuff cold. Yet sadly, many native born Americans would probably fail this test.

Last but not least, I want to talk about the swearing in process. As previously mentioned in this cyberspace, I liked my ceremony for the most part. However, I would’ve liked to have gotten the whole thing over with earlier this year so I could go to France without a visa and get my UK visa earlier. The problem was the earliest ceremony they could schedule me in was in June (while I was in France) and so I was (again) delayed until August (could’ve been sworn in with Jason Bay in July). Starting to see a trend here?

I did a lot of complaining just now, but tomorrow I will be posting Part 2 with some ideas for improvement as well as the second debate argument that needs revision. Stay tuned.