The McGill Report

U.S. Visa Policy: Shooting Ourselves in the Future

Rochester, MN -- A single room in southeastern Minnesota looks more like a United Nations lobby than any other: the crowded waiting room of Michael York, one of the area's only full-time private practice immigration attorneys.

These days, York's Rochester office is bustling like never before as worried immigrants, not only from the Middle East but from around the world, line up seeking help dealing with an increasingly tough and unforgiving U.S. immigration policy.

Somali women in rainbow chiffons. Russian computer programmers in white button shirts. Mexican laborers in coveralls. Chinese doctors in suits and ties.

Two years after 9/11, enforcement of immigration law throughout the United States has tightened dramatically as new federal and state laws, combined with heightened local police vigilance, has cast a widening net for illegal aliens.

At the national level, the detention of more than 5,000 foreign nationals in various anti-terrorism programs has grabbed headlines. The "special registration" fingerprinting of 85,000 men from Arab and Muslim countries raised protests so loud the government last month announced it would end the program. But detentions, deportations, and overall immigration enforcement continue to tighten as the United States makes it harder than ever for foreign visitors to get into the country or to extend their visits here.

Jail Time

York's office reflects those national trends with some local twists.

"A lot of people are trying some desperate things," York said. "They are anxious about their visa status and wanting a way to fix it."

It's not unusual, he said, for undocumented immigrants -- as are many migrant workers and students or tourists on expired visas -- to close bank accounts, not to report household and neighborhood crimes and otherwise take steps to ensure they never cross paths with police. They're going underground.

The police, for their part, are checking immigration status much more carefully and routinely, such as during stops for traffic violations, York said.

Before 9/11, detentions on suspected immigration violations tended to occur only after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the Citizenship and Immigration Service) made a request or complaint. Now, it's common for people to spend some time in a local Minnesota jail pending a full immigration hearing, even before the CIS is involved.

Educated professional people from foreign countries that have been America's allies are now just as nervous as everyone else, York said.

Longer Waits

"You'd be amazed how many come in from Western Europe," he said. "I've had clients from Greece, the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden. They are all antsy about their visa status."

Local computer and medical employees originally recruited on so-called "J1" or "work visas" are doing everything they can to ensure they can stay here legally, such as by getting permanent residence status (a "green card") and by avoiding any potential negative attention from the CIS.

Two common pieces of advice York is giving to immigrant clients these days is to be sure to report one's current address to the CIS, because reporting discrepancies raise a red flag; and to apply for all categories of visa for which one might possibly be eligible.

The vastly more complicated immigration bureaucracy that's been created since 9/11 is also stifling efforts by foreign nationals to enter and stay in the United States. There is far more paperwork and longer waits at all stages.

A common procedure, upgrading to permanent resident "green card" status, once took six months and now takes about 18 months on average, York said.

Labor Supply

Around the world, the visa departments at U.S. embassies have also made it virtually impossible to get previously routine non-immigrant visas.

"It was never easy but it's 10 times more difficult now," York said. "In some cases it's infinitely more difficult. There is almost a presumption of fraud. The interviewers will argue with you over everything. They'll demand several forms of proof for even basic facts."

The overall picture is deeply troubling on two counts.

First, the tighter-than-ever immigration enforcement is surely a threat to the local economy. IBM, Mayo Clinic and satellite companies to the area's two largest employers must hire the best talent both from the United States and abroad to stay competitive in a global marketplace.

What's going to happen now that this vital labor supply line is cut? The question applies not only to Rochester but to all America, of course.

Second, think of those tens of thousands of foreign-born dreamers, geniuses, entrepreneurs and freedom lovers who once idolized the United States and saw themselves making their lives and futures here. Now they're sitting at home, stinging from a futile and humiliating interview at the U.S. embassy.

For them, America, the beautiful, is now America, the bully.

Are we alienating the very people and countries whose friendship and support we most sorely need, not least to win the War on Terror?

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report