In Which I Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming to Talk about Immigration Policy

February 23, 2011 at 4:31 pm 6 comments

On a recent trip to India for the winter break, I needed to renew my US visa. Like many people working on computer security and other subjects on the “Technology Alert List,” I ended up getting stuck there while my application was sent back to the US Department of State, where they supposedly make sure I’m not conducting espionage.I was lucky—I was “only” delayed by a little over a month. (I’m told that the wait used to be several months, and applicants would often give up.) Nonetheless, it was hugely disrputive: I missed a conference where I was supposed to speak, multiple panels and innumerable meetings.

There are several absurd aspects to the way the State Department and the Consulate process these applications:

  • Processing takes a highly variable amount of time. If it always took a month it wouldn’t be nearly as bad, but since it sometimes takes several months, it wrecks your ability to schedule things.
  • The consulate is highly understaffed. A decision to reject an applicant or stick them in limbo is made based on a 1-2 minute interview.
  • I’ve already been in the country for 6.5 years. Besides, my leaving the country was entirely voluntary, and I’m not required to renew my visa unless I do choose to leave voluntarily. One would think that if I were up to something I would have done it by now, or at least not have left.
  • There is no way to get this time-consuming background check done while I’m still in the country.
  • All of this would be justifiable in some way if the system at least worked. But the determination of whether an applicant working on something sensitive is entirely dependent on what they put on their application; worse, it’s based on keyword matching. It is often possible to reword your application to avoid these keywords if you know how; I wasn’t smart enough to do so.

Immigrants are not the only ones harmed by the muddleheaded visa policy and the fickle behavior of the visa overlords—all Americans are. The H-1B lottery, processing delays and other visa problems contribute to turning skilled workers and scientists back home, which hurts the economy. In fact the US spends taxpayer money to educate Ph.D’s and then encourages or forces them to leave.

As with many problems of Government, a major factor here seems to be that there is a vast and bloated immigration apparatus mired in rules and with no central oversight. Are there things an ordinary person can do to help improve the situation? I’d welcome any thoughts on the issue.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous  |  February 23, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    “All of this would be justifiable in some way if the system at least worked. But the determination of whether an applicant working on something sensitive is entirely dependent on what they put on their application; worse, it’s based on keyword matching. It is often possible to reword your application to avoid these keywords if you know how; I wasn’t smart enough to do so.”

    Does this mean that should you have voluntarily made spelling mistakes in your application, you might have escaped the State Dep’t’s detection? Do you have any clue as to what some of those keywords are?

    Reply
    • 2. Arvind  |  February 23, 2011 at 6:32 pm

      Ha! I didn’t mean that it was automated. The decisions are made by a human, but since they’re not domain experts, you can provide a job description that doesn’t use the words they’re looking for.

      Reply
  • 3. Bala  |  February 24, 2011 at 8:38 am

    I treated it as an extended and unpaid vacation. Nothing I said or could have helped my case my profession (software development) did not match with the degree (chemical engineering). Luckily my employer (Amazon.com) knew this and let me stay back.

    I am back in India since and it makes happy every time I am able to board a bus/train without anyone strip searching me.

    Reply
  • 4. Ashok  |  February 25, 2011 at 7:40 am

    My dad had this issue with 221(g) (aeronautics). And the travel agent with whom he bought air tickets told him to send an email to some address of the Chennai consulate asking them to issue the visa soon. I was so sure that wouldn’t work. It is the US consulate after all. But then we lost hope and did send one. And the visa was issued the next day. I still wonder if it was co-incidence or the US consulate in India does work like any other Indian govt office:- there is always some way to get things done faster.

    Reply
  • 5. e  |  March 7, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    I also hated the EB1 green-card process…
    I had to ask people (whom I haven’t worked with, as independent experts) to write recommendation letters for me. Many people do not understand the process, and are not in the least sympathetic. I find it humiliating to go around and beg people to write these letters for me… Fortunately, people who went through the process themselves were more sympathetic and helpful…

    Reply
  • 6. Lemain Dedieu  |  March 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    There was a coordinated effort by affected people in early 2009, and that helped bring down the delay, from about 3-4 months to just above a month (at least at the Delhi consulate); there’s a facebook group:
    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?topic=495&post=3034&uid=147351511955143#!/group.php?gid=50933335266

    Given the current system itself is pretty meaningless and ineffective in service its intended purpose, why not beat it by rephrasing your area in its most benign form? And CS has plenty of jargon to offer.

    Reply

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About 33bits.org

I'm an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

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