Georgia has already figured this out. Now its Alabama's turn. The question is whether the attraction of pursuing a hate agenda will outweigh the severe economic pain inflicted. So far, hate is winning.
I'm on the flight home after an interesting and productive day attending a great conference organized by CIS Ombudsman January Contreras and her team. Ombudsman Contreras kicked off the program with an introduction to what her office handles and then she introduced Cecilia Munoz, the White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Ms. Munoz has a lot to do with the President's immigration policies. Cecilia didn't get in to a lot of specifics, but my big takeaway was that she is interested in making USCIS operate as transparently as possible.
Following this, I attended one of three break out programs. Mine was a panel on employment immigration featuring Lynn Shotwell of the American Council on International Personnel, Amy Nice of the US Chamber of Commerce and Linda Rahal, an immigration lawyer. Fred Troncone of the Ombudsman's office moderated. The common theme amongst the panelists was that the number of USCIS requests for evidence has skyrocketed, making the immigration system unpredictable and causing a great deal of harm to employers and their beneficiary employees. The questions were as interesting as the presentations, particularly because some senior USCIS folks were in the audience. My friend Angelo Paparelli asked about why examiners never seem to get fired even when they are not making quality adjudications. I asked a related question on whether examiners are properly being assigned to cases matched to their qualifications (for example, should an examiner with minimal education be adjudicating an O-1 petition for a top flight scientist). I asked the question because I've heard senior USCIS officials complain privately about problems of this nature. One USCIS official did come to the microphone and explained that this was an issue of concern to them and a new initiative has resulted in a substantial number of recent hires of bachelors degree holders in the adjudicator ranks. Also, more and better training is being provided. Still, it's a big problem. I also asked a question on whether there is a correlation between a pronounced drop in the number of cases handled per examiners and the dramatic rise in RFEs. In other words, idle hands are the devil's tools. Prakash Katri, the former Ombudsman suggested something similar arguing that more USCIS funds received from higher filing feees have had the opposite effect of what is intended. More money means the need to justify more employees and this has led to too much time being spent adjudicating cases by examiners who seek to unnecessarily drag out the process with unneccesary evidence requests.
Following lunch, we heard an address from USCIS Directory Alejandro Mayorkas. He made an interesting announcement regarding I-797s that pertained to lawyers no longer getting the approval notices for their clients. USCIS has backed down and will reverse that decision within a few weeks based on overwhelmingly negative feedback. He pointed out that the agency needed to do a better job getting feedback from the public before policies like this are changed rather than having to backtrack later. Here, here. He also indicated that the controversial use of the VIBE database was closely being studied to determine if it was helping or hindering adjudications. Director Mayorkas talked about the new EB-5 initiative that will allow examiners and applicants to discuss cases by email before decisions are issued rather than having to necessarily issue an RFE. The news here is that he would like to extend this to every product line, something that will potentially greatly approve the adjudication process. At question time, I asked about a pet cause of mine - the plight of individuals on visas who are laid off. USCIS used to be sympathetic to change of employer applications that might be filed a little late and they used to regularly approve B-1 visitor status applications for people who were laid off and needed to have a little time to find new employment or at least wrap up there affairs, allow kids to finish out the semester, etc. Now those cases are routinely denied. I noted that this is my third recession since becoming an immigration lawyer and in the other two, USCIS seemed to have a lot more of a heart than they do today. Director Mayorkas seemed genuinely surprised to hear about this subject and promised to look in to it.
After lunch, it was my turn to present. I was invited to speak on a panel of bloggers along with friends Jason Dzubow and Angelo Paparelli (both fellow bloggers at ILW.com) and my friend Eleanor Pelta, the current president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. We spoke on the role of bloggers in influencing the public debate on immigration. I kicked off the panel with a talk on the history of immigration blogging going right back to my first blog in 1997 which happens to have been the first law related blog in history.
The blog was devoted to the subject of a proposed increase in the number of H-1B visas, something that passed and from 1998 to 2001, we had an annual H-1B quota of 195,000. Incidentally, I didn't call my online diary a blog. That term was coined a few months later.
Jason Dzubow talked about blogger ethics and the challenges we face. Angelo gave an eloquent talk about the importance of not being afraid to upset the agencies we blog about and gave a particularly interesting example of this when he showed a recent blog post on how the obsession with rooting out fraud at USCIS has seriously compromised the ability of the agency to function. The post itself is very interesting, but Angelo showed hit traffic for the post and it identified 618 page views from DHS.gov servers, indicating that a number of people at the agency saw what he had to write. Eleanor Pelta talked about the development of AILA's leadership blog and the variety of missions it serves including advocating on public policy, educating the public, calling out officials for doing the right thing as well as the wrong thing and also telling the stories of the people we represent who may not always be able to have their voices heard. She mentioned as an example a specific blog post I wrote for the blog regarding explaining the dangers of ending birthright citizenship.
Finally, I attended a great session providing a thorough overview of the rules surrounding priority dates. Charles Wheeler, a private practice lawyer kicked off with a comprehensive overview of how dates are established, lost and converted. He was followed by Charles Oppenheim, the Department of State official who for years has written the monthly Visa Bulletin that I know many who read this blog follow closely. Charles is the man who sets the cut off dates each month and he explained in great detail how that process works and what factors he considers. His overarching goal is to make sure that as many of the green cards allocated by Congress in each fiscal year are used because there are no provisions for numbers to spill over (something that Congress genuinely needs to address). This might mean, for example, being careful to allocate numbers closer to the beginning of the fiscal year (October 1st) rather than the end since failing to get cases adjudicated in time over the summer could mean green card numbers are wasted. Mr. Oppenheim talked about looking at prior years to get a sense of historical patterns of usage, but noted that forecasting visa usage is not always easy and he's been really surprised in the past.
I'm en route home now, but did want to extend my thanks again to Ms. Contreras for the invitation as well as Director Mayorkas for his faithful efforts to turn the ship at USCIS and turn it in to the agency that helps stoke our economic engines rather than the reverse. Hopefully, Janet Napolitano recognizes that she's got two outstanding officials heading up both these organizations.
Gregory Siskind is a partner in Siskind Susser's Memphis, Tennessee, office. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Chicago. Mr. Siskind is a member of AILA, a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a member of the ABA, where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman. He is the author of several books, including the J Visa Guidebook and The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. Mr. Siskind practices all areas of immigration law, specializing in immigration matters of the health care and technology industries. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.