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Election 2020: The Right to Counsel in Immigration Court Proceedings

vote2020Although it feels like it’s never stopped, election season is now officially in full swing. I’ve spent the last three years whinging about our current president’s immigration policies. My feelings are no doubt clear. But where do his challengers stand on important issues like the right to counsel, the travel ban (which is now in version 3.0), legalization, and so on. What follows is the beginning of a periodic look at the Democratic candidates on these and other important issues. Let’s start with the right to counsel.

Our immigration laws are very complex. If you’re not an attorney, or if you’re an attorney but don’t practice in the area of immigration, you might be surprised to see the back-and-forth that immigration practitioners themselves engage in on various professional listservs about the meaning of a statute, rule or agency memorandum. If we as practitioners in our own specialized field often cannot understand or come to agreement as to what the Congress has written, or a Court has decided, do we really expect a pro se respondent to?

The law guarantees an individual facing removal from the United States with the right to counsel. The law does not, however, guarantee that legal counsel be paid for by the government if someone cannot afford it. The data is very clear that having legal counsel is the most decisive factor in determining whether someone will obtain a grant of legal relief before an Immigration Judge. Indeed even Immigration judges say that cases before them are resolved far more expeditiously when people are represented by counsel.

Yet only a small fraction of those who are in removal proceedings are represented by an attorney. My personal opinion is the government should establish a right to legal counsel, paid for by the government when necessary, to all people facing removal. So that’s my opinion; what do the candidates believe?

When he was mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg pledged $2 million to provide training for lawyers who wish to represent immigrants in immigration court. Thus far, however, he has not publicly stated whether or not he supports the right to counsel at government expense at a national level. In a piece written in 2017 for his media company, he wrote that “speedier case handling must also make a provision for the adequate legal representation that judges have called for.” He’s right.

In 2019, Senator Amy Klobuchar cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, which would mandate that the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) provide access to counsel for all people detained in facilities administered by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) and Health and Human Services (“HHS”).

In a response to a survey put out by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”), Mayor Pete Buttigieg stated that he would “urge Congress to pledge funds and to work with legal service providers and state and local governments to create a system to substantiate this guarantee, building off of the success of programs like the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.”

In response to the same AILA survey, Senator Bernie Sanders stated the following:

Currently, our immigration adjudication system is so broken that immigrants often do not receive notice of their hearings, notices are received in a language the recipients do not speak, and immigrants are sometimes even marked absent for hearings that did not even physically take place. Navigating the immigration system without legal counsel is next to impossible. To ensure that people can actually access their legal counsel, Bernie will adopt community-based alternatives to detention. When Bernie is in the White House, immigrants will have access to counsel, as well as other supportive services as they wait for their hearings.

His immigration platform, available on his website, goes further; it states that he will “ensure justice and due process for immigrants, including the right to counsel and an end to cash bail, create a $14 billion federal grant program for indigent defense, ensure access to translation and interpretation services throughout every stage of the legal process,” and “end the use of video conferencing for immigration cases.”

Interestingly, to me anyway, former Vice President Joe Biden has no public stated position on access to counsel for those in removal proceedings.

And finally, to round out the discussion, not only does President Trump oppose access to counsel in removal proceedings, his administration’s policies have made simple access to counsel so much more difficult. By way of example, his administration’s Remain in Mexico policy has made it incredibly difficult for asylum seekers to obtain information about legal service providers and, for those who have counsel, to meet with and have access to their counsel.

Providing meaningful access to counsel not only ensures that immigrants are treated fairly and appropriately in removal proceedings, but it will also makes their removal proceedings more efficient. Indeed, if more individuals are represented in removal proceedings, the currently untenable backlogs would be reduced as well.

The landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright required state courts to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who could not afford lawyers. Unfortunately, the immigration law, unlike criminal law, does not provide a right to counsel. While immigrant detainees are allowed to hire their own lawyers, more often than not, they cannot afford counsel. Those who cannot are often the most vulnerable in our population, including children, the mentally disabled, victims of sex trafficking, refugees, and even torture survivors. We can do better, and we should provide those who need free representation the most the right to receive it.

 

[1] See, e.g., “Access to Counsel in Immigration Court,” American Immigration Counsel, Ingrid Eagly, Esq. and Steven Shafer, Esq., Special Report, September 2016.

[2] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2017-03-08/fix-immigration-without-sacrificing-innocent-children

[3] AILA Doc. No. 19093005. (Posted 9/30/19)

[4] AILA Doc. No. 19093005. (Posted 9/30/19)

[5] https://berniesanders.com/issues/welcoming-and-safe-america-all/

The Invisible Wall

border wall.jpgI recently sat for an interview with a reporter who is doing a series of articles on changes in immigration policies with a specific focus on our immigration court system. As I was speaking with this person, our conversation veered outside that lane, and we started talking about changes in immigration policy more broadly. We’ve seen a lot over the past year, but since Donald Trump became our president, the changes in U.S. immigration policy, whether planned or otherwise, have been dramatic. It’s probably not surprising when you have someone like Stephen Miller being the puppeteer for the marionettes.

Some have called it the “invisible wall.” The what? Yes, the invisible wall. While the President has been very public about his desire to construct a physical wall on our Southern border, slowly but surely, he and his minions are quietly and deliberately restricting and slowing the pace of legal immigration by building an “invisible wall.” We’ve seen travel bans, extreme vetting directives, the slowing or stopping of the admission of foreign workers and entrepreneurs into the United States, the ending or reduction of programs for vulnerable populations, and, most recently, obstacles to the naturalization of foreign-born soldiers in the U.S. military.

The most significant change has been processing delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”). Most readers of this article are familiar with the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program which, for many employers, requires a petition to be filed on or about April 1 each year for a employment start date of October 1 of the same year. Well, I recently had a case for a client where we filed their petition on April 1, 2018, and their petition was “finally” approved in November, 2019. That’s a year and a half. I will grant you that this is an extreme example, but the point remains. Case processing delays and applications backlogs at USCIS are out of control. These unprecedented processing delays affect individuals, families, and American businesses throughout the nation.

Most of my personal practice involves employment and business-related immigration. I work with employers to facilitate their access to talent in what is now a very tight job market. I work with companies that are on the cutting edge of science; colleges and universities who are educating our future entrepreneurs and investors; and health care professionals in rural areas that supply health care to underserved communities. Processing delays and case unpredictability does not help businesses in my community and beyond solve their very real staffing needs and challenges.

In April, 2019, USCIS responded to a February 2019 letter sent by 86 Members of the House of Representatives who had expressed concern (and demanded accountability) about USCIS’s processing delays. In its response, USCIS revealed that in Fiscal Year (“FY”) 2018, the agency’s “gross backlog”, that is, its overall volume of delayed applications and petitions, reached 5,691,839 cases. That number is staggering, and according to USCIS, marks a 29 percent increase since FY2016 and a 69 percent increase since FY2014. What’s more, this backlog rose from FY2017 to FY2018 despite a substantial decline in application rates and an increase in its budget during that period. That’s right, USCIS had more resources with which to process fewer new cases, yet its gross backlog still grew. I’m sorry, what?
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, there an estimated 800,000 foreign nationals who are working legally in the United States who are also waiting for a green card. Most of those in the queue are Indian nationals. According to the article, an Indian national who applies for a green card today could expect to wait up to 50 years to receive it.

What about citizenship applications? Since 2016, the processing time for citizenship applications has almost doubled, increasing from about 5 ½ months to over 10 months as of March 31, 2019.

Lawyers are now more than ever taking matters into their own hands. While it used to be the case that lawyers waited to sue the government until a client’s application or petition was denied, or perhaps waited until a case was “outside normal processing times” to sue, but processing times are so out of whack immigration attorneys have no choice but to sue.

It’s difficult enough explaining the ins and outs of our immigration system and processes to clients. Tack on the substantial costs involved in pursuing some immigration benefits (without the prospect of litigation to simply move the case along), and top it off with significant delays, and you can see why many in Congress and the media have called the delays we’re experiencing as being at crisis levels. These delays and backlogs have real impacts on individuals, families and businesses. It impacts our overall economic growth. We deserve better.

As we usher out 2019 and bring in a new year (and a new decade), let’s resolve to pass meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform, be a lot more compassionate to those of our southern neighbors who are fleeing their home countries in search of a better and safe life, and work a little harder to poke some holes and even knock down that invisible wall that’s been erected over the past three years.

 

 

[1] “Historical National Average Processing Time for All USCIS Offices,” USCIS, March 2019, https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/historic-pt.

More H-2B Visas Allocated But Only For Returning Workers

female scientistMy wife was listening to the news the other day about the border crisis (yes, it’s real, but certainly not in the way our President describes it) and suggested that I write about it. She’s right, I should write about it. And I will. But first, my New Years Eve debacle has one further (and hopefully final) chapter to it. (I feel like I need to finish the story.) I will be brief.

So, it’s bad enough that as the clock struck midnight on New Years Eve many of my colleagues and I were sitting at our offices or at our homes in front of our computers preparing to file temporary labor certification applications with the U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) for our clients that participate in the H-2B visa program. As the New Year rang in, there were applications for approximately 97,800 workers that were about to be filed with the USDOL for a total of 33,000 H-2B visa numbers, and because of the “unprecedented volume of simultaneous system users”, the USDOL’s computer system completely hemorrhaged and shut down.

Eventually, a week later, the USDOL fixed their computers, and all the applications were filed. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”) announced that it had received enough petitions to meet the congressionally mandated H-2B cap for the second half of the government’s fiscal year for 2019. That means if an employer was not able to file its petition with USCIS on or before February 19, 2019, which was the final receipt date for new cap-subject H-2B worker petitions requesting an employment start date before October 1, 2019, then the employer was out of luck for 2019. Some of my clients were affected.

Fast forward to last week. The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the USDOL announced, after consultation with each other and after weighing several factors, including whether U.S. workers would be harmed, that an additional 30,000 H-2B visas would be allocated for the remainder of FY2019. Sounds great, right? Well it is, sort of.

The problem is, the additional visas will be available only to applicants who have held H-2B status in at least one of the past three fiscal years (2016, 2017 and 2018). These are called “returning workers.” So that means foreign nationals who have not participated in the H-2B visa program in the past three fiscal years, or even ever, are precluded from coming being sponsored by U.S. employers who have established a need for temporary workers (e.g., seasonal, peak load, etc.). Again, I have clients that are affected.

Case in point. I have two clients that are not only participating themselves for the first time in the H-2B visa program, but had identified a number of workers that were qualified to do the work their companies needed them for, but none of those foreign workers had ever participated in the H-2B visa program before.

Of course they could try to identify other workers that will meet the guidelines of the governments new rule (which has not even been published yet). But that takes time and can be expensive. And for what purpose? If the government is going to provide additional visas for the H-2B program, what sense does it make to limit the availability of those visas to foreign nationals who have been issued H-2B visas in the past? Seems pretty arbitrary to me?

The H-2B program is an absolutely necessary program for many, many employers who have seasonal or peak load business needs. The process for participating in it, however, is unnecessarily cumbersome, now seemingly arbitrary, and desperately needs to be reformed. Please, Congress, get to work and fix this.

New Years Eve 2019 – The Epilogue (When the Broken Immigration System Broke)

computercrashSome of you will recall my post-New Years Eve rant about the H-2B nonimmigrant visa program, and specifically the mayhem that ensued as the clock struck midnight on New Years Eve when the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“USDOL”) servers had a meltdown.[1]  As the New Year rang in, there were applications for approximately 97,800 workers that were about to be filed with the USDOL and, because of the “unprecedented volume of simultaneous system users”, the USDOL’s computer system completely hemorrhaged and shut down.[2]  There was, according to the USDOL, over thirty times the user demand this past New Years Even compared to the previous year.[3]  Doesn’t that tell you something about the need for the H-2B visa program.

One week later – on a Monday – in the middle of the afternoon during a normal workday – the USDOL finally got its act together and most of the H-2B filings that were supposed to be filed on New Years Eve were filed.[4]  So, what happened after that?

Well, for one thing, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”) recently announced that it has received enough petitions to meet the congressionally mandated H-2B cap for the second half of the government’s fiscal year for 2019. That means if an employer was not able to file its petition with USCIS on or before February 19, 2019, which was the final receipt date for new cap-subject H-2B worker petitions requesting an employment start date before October 1, 2019, then the employer was out of luck for 2019.

This is yet another example of a visa program that is desperately in need of reform and is woefully mismanaged.

In what can only be described as a glimmer of marginal and limited hope for some of our clients, on February 15, 2019, President Trump signed an omnibus spending bill which includes a provision providing limited cap relief to H-2B employers during FY2019. The Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, has yet to announce how many additional H-2B visas will be made available for the remainder of FY2019.

The second thing that happened is the USDOL updated its procedures for processing H-2B applications.  That is, the USDOL has proposed a rule that for all H-2B applications filed on or after July 3, 2019, which is the earliest an employer can start the H-2B process for FY2020, applications will be randomly ordered for processing based on the date of filing and the start date of work requested.

Some of you will recall previous rants of mine related to the H-1B program, and specifically USCIS’s use of a “lottery” system to determine which employers’ petitions (who wish to hire foreign workers in “specialty occupations”) it will accept, and which it will reject.  I counsel my clients who we file H-1B petitions for with USCIS to “keep their fingers crossed.”   Imagine that a client hires you, pays you your fee, and you tell them to “keep their fingers crossed” that USCIS simply selects their petition – in a lottery system.  The system is ridiculous.

Politics aside, the United States is experiencing a strong economy with record-low unemployment.  The H-2B program’s congressionally mandated cap of 66,000 visas is entirely inadequate to meet the seasonal needs of the many businesses that participate in the program.  And for all the nay sayers who say “Hire American”, this program requires employers to recruit for available U.S. workers.  In most cases, they’re aren’t any for these positions.  And quite candidly, if everyone would allow for a moment of truth, U.S. workers simply do not want to do the jobs that are generally utilized in the H-2B program.  It’s just that simple.

According to the H-2B Workforce Coalition, if Congress does not take immediate steps to raise or eliminate the H-2B cap, over 70% of seasonal positions for the second half of fiscal 2019 will go unfulfilled due to cap limitations.[5]

Our government must come up with a better and more equitable system within which employers can hire the help that they need. The H-2B program is an absolutely necessary program for many many employers.  The process for participating in it, and the ability to participate in it, however, needs to be totally reformed.

[1]Recall that the H-2B visa program requires employers (or their attorneys) to sit by their computer at the stroke of midnight (on the east coast anyway), on New Years Eve, requiring them to hit “submit”, tens and sometimes hundreds of times, so they can participate in a visa program to fill necessary positions with their company.

[2]USDOL indicated that employers had prepared 5,400 H-2B applications, which were in a queue to be submitted to the USDOL, seeking a total of 97,800 workers.

[3]Seehttps://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/.

[4]The USDOL reported that there were approximately 4,195 H-2B applications covering more than 79,500 workers positions.  Seehttps://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/.

[5]Seewww.h2bworkforcecoalition.com.

A BROKEN Immigration System: The New Year’s Eve H-2B Debacle

computercrashYou can’t make this stuff up.  This is the world that I and a few other local colleagues of mine work in.

So, I asked my wife what she wanted to do to bring in the New Year (not that we usually do anything more than have dinner with some close friends), with the caveat that no matter what it was, I had to be home … in front of my computer … at midnight … because I had work to do. That’s right, many of my colleagues and I (on the East coast anyway) were at our offices or at our homes in front of our computers working as the clock struck midnight.  And then mayhem ensued, and I promise you, it was not fireworks or noisemakers.  Let me explain.

One of the visa programs that some of my clients use is the H-2B nonimmigrant visa program.  The H-2B nonimmigrant visa allows foreign nationals who are citizens of certain named countries (with limited exceptions) to accept “temporary” non-agricultural employment in the United States (e.g., landscape workers, ski resort employees, etc.).  Before doing so, however, the sponsoring employer must first obtain a temporary labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) by establishing that there were no willing, able, and qualified U.S. workers available during a recruitment period.

Like some other visa programs, there is an annual numerical limitation for this visa program; specifically there are 66,000 H-2B visas that are available in each government fiscal year.  Also like some other visa programs, there are more companies filing applications for a temporary labor certification from the USDOL than there are visa numbers available.

Of the 66,000 worker positions that are available annually, 33,000 are allocated to each half of the fiscal year. This allows industries that traditionally have opposite seasons (e.g., summer beach resorts v. winter ski resorts) to have a “fair” chance at participating in the H-2B program to obtain necessary temporary workers.  Because of the incredible demand associated with the H-2B program (indeed even our President allegedly uses this program for his resorts), H-2B applications are now date and time stamped to the millisecond in order to establish the order of submission.  Applications are processed by the USDOL in the order that they’re received.  And for the second half of the government’s 2018 – 2019 fiscal year, the period for filing a temporary labor certification with the USDOL commenced one millisecond past midnight on New Years Eve.[1]

As the New Year rang in, the USDOL later reported that there were applications for 97,800 workers that were about to be filed by an “unprecedented volume of simultaneous system users.”[2]  The USDOL noted there were 22,900 server login attempts on January 1, 2019 versus a mere 721 attempts in the same period on January 1, 2018.  Not surprisingly, the government’s online filing system crashed. The exchange that went on over the next couple of hours, well past midnight, on the American Immigration Lawyer Service’s (“AILA”) H-2B attorney Listserv, bordered on a combination of sad, pathetic, and ridiculous.  It was also really so unnecessary.

Readers of this piece know how much I long for meaningful reform to our immigration system.  There are many substantive examples that I’ve written about over the past few years.  This is not one of them.  This is a procedural reform, somewhat selfishly written for sure (as anyone who knows me knows that I can barely stay up to 9:00 pm on a normal day), but it’s important.

What kind of program requires employers (or yes, even their attorneys) to sit by their computer at the stroke of midnight, on New Years Eve no less, requiring them to hit “submit”, tens and sometimes hundreds of times, so they can participate in a visa program to fill necessary positions with their company?  And in today’s day and age, what kind of government is so ill-equipped to handle the unprecedented volume that they themselves created?  Was the system not adequately stress tested?  Was no one monitoring it (perhaps in light of the current government shut down)?

As annoying as this whole debacle has been, it’s not missing New Years that bothers me.  Everyone who knows me knows that I’m usually sleeping at the stroke of midnight in any event.  It’s that our government can’t come up with a better and more equitable system within which employers and their counsel can work to get things done.  It really is ridiculous. The H-2B program is an absolutely necessary program for many employers.  The process for participating in it, however, is unnecessarily cumbersome and needs to be reformed

[1]For those companies (or their attorneys) filing outside of the eastern time zone, the filing time was an hour earlier for each time zone west you go.

[2]  At that time, the USDOL indicated that employers had prepared 5,400 H-2B applications, which were in a queue to be submitted to the USDOL, seeking a total of 97,800 workers.

Immigration Reform 2.0: President Trump’s Proposal for Dreamers

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Should the title be Immigration Reform 2.0 or 22.0?  Maybe Immigration Reform Redux?  Really, how many times have we started down this road, only to be disappointed (or, at least that’s the way I feel anyway)?  Well, we’re starting down this path … yet again (albeit with some difficulty).  So what’s the latest iteration?

On January 25, 2018, the Trump Administration House released its “Framework on Immigration Reform and Border Security”, a one-page outline of its plan to legalize the status of so-called “Dreamers” in exchange for what it calls sweeping reforms to the immigration system.   The reforms are hardly sweeping, but they are dramatic.

The President’s framework proposes significant cuts to the “legal” immigration system (i.e., U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family members sponsoring their own qualified family members, e.g., possibly spouses, children, parents and siblings).  This is referred to as eliminating “chain migration” or as the White House is calling it, “protecting the nuclear family.”[1] The President is also looking for massive funding for border security and interior enforcement, including $25 billion for the border wall as well as more spending for Customs & Border Patrol and Immigration & Customs Enforcement agents.  The President is also calling for the elimination of the Diversity Visa Lottery Program.

In exchange for all of this, the President’s plan would offer legal status to young people who currently have DACA status or who are otherwise DACA-eligible (estimated to be about 1.8 million people), including an opportunity to apply for citizenship after waiting a minimum of 10 years.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a public outcry against it from the Democrats and their progressive base.  The official statement from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”) reads as follows:

This proposal isn’t a serious effort to reach a deal on the crisis created by the administration when it terminated the DACA program. The dubious relief it offers to a questionable number of Dreamers is dwarfed by its offensive assault on families, the waste of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on harsh enforcement that does next to nothing to improve national security, and a repudiation of Constitutional principles of due process. This proposal is completely untethered from common sense, decency, or American values.

There are several angles from which I could argue against the President’s “framework”, but I will limit myself to his efforts to end what he calls “chain migration” and the economics of that.

Every year, over 1 million new immigrants (i.e., Green Card holders) are admitted to the United States.[2]  About half of these individuals are the first in their family to permanently settle in the United States.  The other half are joining their family members who arrived earlier.  This is commonly known as “chain migration.”  The starting point for these new immigrants may have been different (e.g., the family-based Green Card process, the employment-based Green Card process, or perhaps refugees who were resettled in the United States, among other possibilities).  Ultimately, though, these permanent residents and perhaps eventual citizens of the United States can thereafter start to bring their own or other family-members to the United States.

The contributions of family-based immigrants to our U.S. economy, to our local communities, and frankly to the national fabric are great.  The data suggests that they account for a significant portion of the United States’ domestic economic growth, contribute to the well-being of our current and future labor force, and play a key role in business development and community improvement.  They are also the most upwardly mobile segments of the labor force.  Here’s some data from the Migration Policy Institute.

  • Immigrants accounted for 17%, or 27.6 million, of the 161.8 million persons in the civilian labor force in 2016.[3]
  • Of the 26.2 million employed foreign-born workers ages 16 and older in 2016, the largest share, at almost 32%, worked in management, professional, and related occupations.

A 2016 panel put together by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine found that “immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth. The inflow of labor supply has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging workforce and reduced consumption by older residents.”  Among its findings:

  • Immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.
  • In terms of fiscal impacts, while first-generation immigrants are more costly to governments, mainly at the state and local levels, than are the native-born, in large part due to the costs of educating their children, as adults, however, the children of immigrants (the second generation) are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.

I could go on, and I am sure that those who oppose my views would come up with their own data to contradict mine.

In 1965, liberals and conservatives in Congress compromised their differences and created an immigration model that would favor “family unification.” That’s the system we have today.  By no means is it perfect.  If we restrict it, however, we will no doubt negatively impact our country’s economic growth.

Family-based immigration is essential to our economic growth, not only because of immigrants’ contributions in the workforce, but because the current policy does indeed attract the talent we hope to bring and need to bring from around the world. The United States trains entrepreneurs and other highly skilled individuals from across the world at our renowned universities. We want them to stay, to build companies and drive innovation right here in the United States.  Consider, for example, that the current CEO’s of Tesla, Google, and Amazon were all born overseas.  Many well-known companies would not exist at all if our immigration system had not enabled their founders or their parents to move to the United States in the first place.

If we create obstacles for individuals to bring their relatives to the United States, we will no doubt lose them to other countries with more progressive immigration regimes.  We need to remind ourselves that “chain migration” is not a threat to the United States, but rather an essential economic strategy.

 

 

[1]  The White House officially defines this as follows:  The process by which foreign nationals permanently resettle within the U.S. and subsequently bring over their foreign relatives, who then have the opportunity to bring over their foreign relatives, and so on until entire extended families are resettled in the country.

[2] In 2016, about 1.49 million foreign-born individuals moved to the United States, which was a 7 percent increase from the 1.38 million that entered in 2015.

[3] “Civilian labor force” is defined as civilian persons ages 16 and older who were either employed or unemployed but looking for work in the week prior to participation in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) and Decennial Census.

What is this “Diversity Visa Program” that President Trump is Talking About?

dreamstime_xs_62076674-copyOn Halloween, 2017, an Uzbek immigrant purposely killed eight people in New York City with a rental truck he rented from The Home Depot as he drove down a bike path in lower Manhattan and mowed down several people before crashing into a school bus.  Reports indicated that the 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant, Sayfullo Saipov, had entered the United States through what is called the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program” (the “DV program”).

The dust had barely settled on the tragedy, and President Trump tweeted, “The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based.”  Not surprisingly, Senator Schumer immediately shot back, “I guess it’s not too soon to politicize a tragedy.”

So what exactly is the DV program that’s now being politicized?  The diversity immigrant category was added to the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) by the Immigration Act of 1990.  Its purpose was to stimulate “new seed” immigration (basically, to foster new, more varied, immigration from under-represented parts of the world).

To accomplish this, the DV program makes 50,000 immigrant visas (i.e., “Green Cards”) available annually to individuals of countries from which immigrant admissions were lower than a total of 50,000 over the preceding five years. The visas are divided among six global geographic regions according to the relative populations of the regions, with their allocation weighted in favor of countries in regions that were under-represented among immigrant admissions to the United States during the past five years. The INA limits each country to 7%, or 3,850, of the total, and further provides that Northern Ireland be treated as a separate foreign state for DV program purposes.

The qualifications are quite (or I should say deceptively) simple.  First, an individual needs to be from a country that is allowed to participate in the DV program.  Second, the principal DV applicant must have a high school education, or its equivalent, or two years of qualifying work experience as defined under U.S. law.[1]   The program has its supporters and detractors.  Its supporters argue that the DV program provides “new seed” immigrants for an immigration system that’s weighted disproportionately in favor of family-based immigrants from a handful of countries.  Detractors argue that the program is vulnerable to fraud and misuse and, as President Trump is now tweeting, is potentially an avenue for terrorists, noting the difficulties of performing background checks in many of the countries eligible for the diversity lottery.[2]  The program’s supporters counter that background checks for criminal and national security matters are performed on all prospective immigrants seeking to come to the United States, including those who have won diversity visas.

We’re now in the 2019 DV program.  Approximately 14 million people around the world will apply for a visa.[3]  Only 0.3% of them will be successful.  Anecdotally the DV program has been referred to as the “golden ticket”.

We can debate the policy of whether the DV program should stay or go.  While the President quickly pointed his finger at Senator Schumer for being responsible for the DV program, what he failed (of course) to point out was that the legislation was overwhelming supported by Congress in 1990, and then signed into law by then Republican President George H.W. Bush.  President Trump also failed to mention that proposed legislation passed by the Senate in 2014 (but which did not pass the House), led by the now defunct Gang of Eight (of which Sen. Schumer was a member), would have canceled this program.

In my view, canceling the DV program is not the answer to our problems, and will not make our country safer.  The same laws are in effect to screen potential immigrants from all countries, regardless of the type visa that they enter the United States.  Rather than pointing fingers in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy (which the President was not willing to do after the Las Vegas shooting when gun control would have been at issue), we should focus on the root causes to prevent future attacks and to protect all Americans from those who seek to do us harm.

 

[1] An individual qualifying with work experience must have two years of experience in the last five years in an occupation which, by U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) definitions, requires at least two years of training or experience that is designated as Job Zone 4 or 5, classified in a Specific Vocational Preparation (“SVP”) rating of 7.0 or higher.  The USDOL provides information on job duties, knowledge and skills, education and training, and other occupational characteristics on their website http://www.onetonline.org/. The O*Net online database groups work experience into five “job zones”.  While many occupations are listed, only certain specified occupations qualify for the DV Program.

[2] In the “for what it’s worth” column, nationals of Uzbekistan have not been singled-out in any of President Trump’s travel ban associated executive orders … so far.

[3] In FY2015, the last year for which statistics are available, close to 14.5 million people from around the world applied for the 50,000 available visas.

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