Adventures in Bureaucracy
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Don't hold back, tell me how you REALLY feel:

"The sheer staggering awfulness of CIRA (the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, passed by the U.S. Senate yesterday) is just beginning to dawn on me. Heritage's Robert Rector, who knows what he's talking about, called it "the worst bill I have seen in 25 years." The only thing to question there is the 25. This might easily be the worst bill ever."
Sunday, May 21, 2006
Thanks to Consul-at-Arms for the kind words and other links.
Wandering around Washington, away from the tourist track, you can easily get disoriented. Boys playing baseball in the parks, girls selling lemonade and cookies at their own little stand, students graduating from college, families out for a stroll... It's almost like a normal American city.

But it isn't, of course. That becomes clear when you get to downtown. From several blocks away up Sixteenth Street you can hear the voices amplified by loudspeakers. As you walk closer you can see the police presence, the flashing blue lights drawing onlookers like a porch light draws moths. And naturally I went to see what was going on.

It turns out I saw the end part of the "Hands Off Venezuela and Cuba", the part where they had arrived in Lafayette Park across from the White House to give really boring speeches. Turnout didn't look all that high -- the thick of the crowd in front of the speaker's tent giving their one-fisted salute certainly wasn't packed shoulder to shoulder. The whole event looked and sounded pretty dull, so I continued on my merry way to the White House, where some guy was capering about with a sign and a giant George W. Bush mask. At one point the wind blew it off and he made some Cheney joke. It's one way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon, I guess -- suum cuique. The Age of Hooper stayed around to take pictures of the rally, making me glad I wandered off when I did.

I don't get what the attraction is, and obviously I am not alone in that, considering turnout appeared to small, and some of that was probably just because of the nice weather. But why would Americans come out to support a leader like Hugo Chavez, who hates the United States? One sign even had something along the lines of "Long Live great Venezuelan-Iranian Friendship!" It's not like Chavez is that charismatic of a guy. I can kind of see admiration for Castro, since he's got some of the residual glow of the 1960's about him (obviously the good old days for a lot of those present, who were kind of long in the tooth), but Chavez?

Sure, the rhetoric may talk about building a worker's paradise, and the romance of it all may bring people to the cause here, but on the ground the reality is somewhat different. Happy citizens do not leave their own countries voluntarily (why does everything on the site always come back to immigration?), but it looks like not everyone wants to stay in the Bolivarian Republic - emigration is on the increase. And for some reason people risk death to leave Cuba, year after year after year.

Casimir Pulaski marches on the White House for Polish inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program.
Saturday, May 20, 2006
One other thought on the preceding post -- it certainly gives a big Nelson Muntz "HA-HA! to Greece, doesn't it?
What's going on in the Senate? It sounds like they really are talking about comprehensive changes to the whole immigration system, and that's going to include the Visa Waiver Program.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
I saw some reports of this in the foreign press (but not yet in the Washington Post, which could mean it never really happened) saying that Poland will soon be joining the Visa Waiver Program. That one would definitely take some special legislative doings, as I don't think Poland would otherwise meet the criteria set forth in section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Sure, Poland may have a machine readable passport, and they don't require visas for American visitors, but unless things have changed -- a LOT -- since I was on the ground, there's no way the visa refusal rate for Poles applying to get visas is under two per cent over the last two years. Then again, maybe accession to the EU has siphoned all the marginal cases into gainful legal employment in Britain (there are about 73,000 Poles in the UK according to this article) , so maybe it would qualify on that after all.

Well, it appears that they still don't qualify on those grounds alone, so three Senators - Santorum, Mikulski and Frist - introduced an amendment to get Poland on the program, and the amendment was passed. I haven't found the exact text of the amendment (it's a Saturday morning, and I don't want to be here all day), but the digest version says it's specifically for Poland. Other reports say it doesn't specify Poland by name, but rather sets forth a bunch of standards that taken together, only Poland can meet: EU members who have supported the war in Iraq with at least 300 troops and who do not pose a terrorist threat.

Very interesting indeed. Just a few posts again I mentioned the foreign policy aspect of the immigration system, and the Visa Waiver Program is very definitely a sore spot in US relations with some other countries. I don't think expanding visa-free access to the United States for some additional countries is a huge security risk, and it could actually make some aspects of immigration law enforcement easier. When I did airport inspection work, the big issue with Poles was that a good number of them tended to stay beyond their period of admission by a very, very long time. Visa Waiver would make it easier to deny entry in the first place, and should theoretically make it easier to deport overstays who are picked up within the country. The bad news would be that the Polish passport would suddenly become a lot more attractive to people from Poland's eastern neighbors, but I doubt this issue came up in the Senate.

Someone's Knocking at the Door
The Senate amendment is still a long way from becoming law, but I am sure the criteria are going to come up in any diplomatic dealings at US embassies around the world by Tuesday at the very latest (sometimes it takes a while to draft those diplomatic notes).

Let's look at who else supplied over three hundred troops to the Coalition of the Willing. The top three countries after the United States still in-country are the United Kingdom, South Korea and Italy. Well. The United Kingdom and Italy are already in the Visa Waiver Program. South Korea isn't, but they really want to be. They supplied almost four times as many troops to Iraq as Poland did, so I'm guessing the Koreans are going to push to get the "EU member" standard dropped. Of course, then that gets into the whole issue of North Koreans using South Korean passports, which could arguably pose a terrorist threat, but one issue at a time.

Poland comes next, but a lot of other countries provided more than three hundred service personnel to the efforts in Iraq. Australia, Denmark and Japan already have the visa exemption, but some of the other countries could make things interesting. Romania supplied over 800 troops, Georgia 400 and El Salvador 380 (and those were under Polish command no less). No way are we going to give visa-free access to any of them (even though Salvadoran often join the flow of Mexicans crossing our southern border without inspection). So what happens when Romania joins the EU, currently scheduled for next year? Along with Bulgaria, which also provided over 300? Will they both meet Santorum-Mikulski-Frist criteria upon accession to the European Union?

Because if they do, brace yourselves for even more of a commotion than the one you're already going to get soon from the countries that joined the EU in the last round of accessions. They're small countries, and no doubt the argument will be about how arbitrary the number of 300 troops in Iraq is. Hungary provided 300 transportation troops - hey, maybe that number isn't so arbitrary after all, if the amendment is tailored to Poland. Latvia provided 122 troops, Lithuania 120, Slovakia 105 engineers, the Czech Republic 90 trainers and Estonia 35 troops. I don't know what the visa refusal rates are at these posts, but some of them might be stronger candidates under the traditional section 217 criteria than Poland.

The Santorum-Mikulski-Frist amendment probably won't make Visa Waiver program membership an issue where it wasn't one before. I mean, the Ukraine may have contributed over 1600 troops to the Iraq war, but I don't think any Ukrainian politician or diplomat seriously thought they had a prayer of making the country Visa Waiver eligible in the near future. But the amendment may bring on a new diplomatic push by countries that don't meet all the criteria, but do meet some of them. Look for more like this from "FS Final Word", a business publication in the Czech Republic -- the title in the archives is "Svoboda's Visa Defeat":

"Svoboda has been getting attention for trying to end U.S. and Canadian visas for Czechs, but the CR suffered a setback on Wed. when the U.S. Senate passed an amendment for making Poles - but not Czechs - eligible for the U.S.'s visa-waiver program. A key condition is that the new visa-waiver countries have at least 300 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CR has nearly as many as Poland on a per-capita basis, but only 200 in total. Not only does this show how truly valued the CR is by the U.S. as a member of the "coalition of the willing," but it is also a potential catastrophe for Svoboda and his ambitions."
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Father Jim finds an article about the curious effects of asparagus. If you've ever wondered how something so good can turn into something so foul, well, this article is for you.

And why just explain a phenomenon when you can make wild extrapolations?

Those who adore asparagus, it turns out, tend to be "dramatic, theatrical people who like to be the centre of attention," says Hirsch. They're also "lively, enthusiastic, flirtatious, provocative and seductive," with a penchant for "flights of romantic fantasy."

Don't Germans love asparagus?
Monday, May 15, 2006
Holy crap. That last post is why I tend to stick with one-liners.
The immigration debate has been much in the news, and it's of no little interest to me, considering that I used to work for INS. I watched the President's speech tonight, and, well, color me unimpressed.

The whole issue is emotional, which is unfortunate, since nobody appears to be taking a cold, rational look at what we want from our immigration system. Not just continuing the "nation of immigrants" nostalgic view of national lore, but what we as a nation hope to gain from what and how many people we let in. Maybe I've been missing this part of the national discussion, but then again, this kind of discussion may require some of our elected leadership to forego time in front of the TV cameras to discuss it with their colleagues.

The President's speech seemed to me to be largely procedural and to ignore the fundamental questions. On his main points:

1. Strengthen border controls? That's kind of a no-brainer. Who thinks we should weaken them?

2. Institute a temporary worker program. This actually has potential if it's done right. And to me, doing it right does NOT mean opening the American job market to the entire world. Why hire any Americans to do anything if we can import a bunch of people from overseas who will work at a fraction of the wage? Forget Mexicans, let's haul in people from the really destitute countries! Maybe we can find some of those cargo cultists from Papua and stick 'em in a Walmart -- they'll think they've found Nirvana and will probably work for a few unsold T-shirts!

3. Employer responsibilities. Didn't I hear all that in 1986? Didn't work out too well then. And I can tell you from personal experience that there is no such thing as a tamper-proof card.

4. It's not an amnesty! We'll just let all the illegal aliens stay here if they pay a fine. Tell me again how this isn't rewarding illegality? This is the section that is inspiring thousands of people who will attempt to cross the border tonight.

5. English is good. Did I miss the policy prescription here? Or was this just an opportunity to wave the flag?

So basically, it sounds like more of the same to me, except for having another amnesty. I came into INS while they were cleaning up the wreckage from the 1986 amnesty -- you know, the one-time-only, never-to-be-repeated one that sounds almost exactly like the one the President spoke about this evening -- and that was bad. One way in was through the Special Agricultural Worker provision, which said that people who did some sort of farm work for a certain period of time were eligible for legal residence. And what farm work some people did! Picking melons from trees and more! There were also provisions based on the length of time someone had been in the States. In the beginning of the program the evidenciary standard for proving how long someone had been residing in the United States was pretty strong, but it got watered down really quickly. I heard that proof of residence included sworn affidavits by other illegal aliens. It worked out so well before; let's try it again with five times as many applicants!

But again, what do we want from our immigration system? Obviously there's the issue of national security. The borders are a vulnerability, and if any migrant can cross it, so can any drug smuggler, any wanted felon and any would-be terrorist. The immigration system needs to provide some measure of security to weed out the baddies.

And there's the economy. Immigrants have beneficial effects on the economy, and I don't think anyone is arguing (seriously anyway) to shut the flow off entirely. So economic considerations do have some legitimate bearing on the ideal immigration system.

What else do we want? Something that always comes up is the issue of respect for the law. How do we encourage immigrants to go the legal method? There's also the issue of foreign policy ramifications. This doesn't enter much into the national discussion, other than the accusations that Vicente Fox is running our immigration system now, but how the United States administers its borders is very much an issue in our relations with other countries. If you don't believe me, ask any Foreign Service officer in Seoul, Warsaw, Prague or any other country that's trying to secure participation in the Visa Waiver Program. Or for that matter, do a little digging on what prompted the line in the President's speech about countries accepting their own nationals when we deport them.

Right now our immigration system is heavily tilted towards family reunification. It's possible to immigrate if you've got a certain kind of job and your employer is willing to file the paperwork for you, and it's possible to win the visa lottery (known to officialdom as the Diversity Visa Program), but the bottom line is that if you don't have a family member who's already legally in the United States, your chances of getting in are fairly remote. However, your chances of getting a job if you do get in illegally are fairly good, so there's the incentive. Plus there's not much of a risk that you'll be caught and deported.

So here are my recommendations for the system:

Make it easier for the immigrants we want to get here legally. This first means figuring out what kind of immigrants we really want, which is not necessarily an easy feat. However, once we know, introduce the kind of self-petitioning immigrant classes that Australian and Canada have for people who have the desired skills. Need more computer programmers? Scientists? Doctors and nurses? Allow them to prove their qualifications to a consular officer and then let them in. Don't put quota numbers on them either, just periodically re-evaluate what skills and professions would benefit the United States.

This could also have political ramifications. Yes, strip those professionals from our rival countries so they're helping our economy to grow instead of China's. Want to show national displeasure with Putin's Russia? Open the doors to Russian professionals (before they are imprisoned while their businesses are nationalized). Want to watch Venezuela collapse? Let's import its middle class, stand by and watch Hugo Chavez waving the flag at some oil refinery without any managers. Plus if those Aplocalypse: Europe scenarios really do come about in the next twenty years, this would give the good Europeans a way to safety.

Reward people who play by the rules. The part I find galling about this evening's presidential proposal was the fact that it would reward people for breaking the law. Our current immigration system makes people who want to come legally jump through all sorts of hoops and tests their patience anyway. So instead of having them pay a fine to become legal, how about making all the oversubscribed immigrant categories current?

The short version: if you're the parent, spouse or dependent child of a US citizen, you're in. There are no numerical limits on how many can immigrate in any given year. With more distant relatives, and also for relatives of green-card holders, and for some employment categories, there's a cap. Some of the waiting times are very, very long -- if you're a married adult child of a US citizen from Mexico, for instance, your number has finally come up this year, if you put in the paperwork in 1995. Look at the wait times on the charts here. Instead of legalizing people who are here illegally, how about bringing in the people who have been waiting for their turns?

Temporary worker program. I'm not adamantly opposed to the idea of one, as there is a need for unskilled labor in this country. After all, twelve million illegals aren't coming here to be unemployed. However, the way the President describes it, it sounds like his proposal is to allow any employer to bring in any foreign worker. Why outsource work when we can simply import a cheaper workforce?

I haven't really thought this one though, but I can see instituting numerical quotas on this category, and tying participating countries to our foreign policy objectives. Poland and El Salvador, among other countries, helped in Iraq. Why not allow some of their citizens to come here for construction or agricultural work? The thing here is to stick to a numerical limit on visas, and tie the number of visas issues after the first round to the number of people who return and check in with the US consulates. So if, say, 100,000 Salvadorans get temporary worker visas this year, and only 60,000 return to El Salvador when the time runs out, that means only 40,000 visas would be issued the following year. I don't know whether this would prompt some anger in El Salvador at the overstays who ruin it for everyone else, but there could be something to it.

Then there's Mexico, the elephant in the parlor. The vast majority of all immigration, both legal and illegal, is from Mexico. Do we want to use our immigration system as a safety valve for Mexican politics and a way to funnel money into the Mexican economy? If we do, are we encouraging the hopes of some of the revanchists out demonstrating a few weeks ago? Between family reunification (and if we take in all the people waiting around in oversubscribed categories, there would be a lot more people suddenly eligible for the family categories) and a temporary program, there would still be a lot of Mexican nationals eligible for US residence. The President made some good points about assimilation. Multi-culturalism aside, I think most Americans want our immigrants to become Americans, and not simply expatriates residing in the United States.

That leaves the issue of how to deal with the people who are already here illegally. Some legalization schemes aren't necessarily bad. For instance, I thought the 245(i) scheme was a good idea, and something that could be applied to those illegal residents who would qualify for permanent residence under the immigrant categories we already have. 245(i) let illegal aliens pay a special fee to process their immigrant paperwork without leaving the United States, instead of having to go back to their countries of origin. What's so bad about this? Why add to consular workload to inconvenience someone who qualifies for permanent residence anyway. Let them pay extra -- and believe me, these suggestions aren't going to come cheap. Expanding processing means expanding the federal workforce, both in Citizenship and Immigration Services as well as at US Embassies overseas. Increased processing fees for convenience would help with the costs.

And for those illegal aliens who don't qualify for legal residence? Weed them out through attrition. I'm not suggesting massive sweeps throughout the country, but illegal aliens are encountered by law enforcement all the time. Right now they're usually let go, so there's no incentive for the illegals not to stay. Increased inconvenience and risk of penalties would not necessarily prevent further illegal immigration, but it could discourage it.

But these are just some ideas from someone who has some first-hand knowledge of the immigration process. In the end it's a political decision, so whatever law comes down from on high (and when they say "comprehensive" reform, that usually means the legislation is going to have all sorts of unintended effects well beyond those immediately envisioned), that's what we'll implement. I just hope what we eventually implement is something that makes a serious effort to address the problems we have with our system today.
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Another great moment in the history of journalism.
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Well, it IS a renewable resource...

Except the inventor is obviously not great at marketing. A nutritional supplement?! How about bottling the stuff up and making it power weed-whackers or other small motors. (via Dantravels)
"What if this gets out? What if she tells her girlfriends? My reputation will be ruined."

Good thing for him nobody reads the Sunday Post.
Saturday, May 06, 2006

Today turned out to be a beautiful day in the nation's capital, so I went out and about to enjoy the weather while it lasts.

Yes, I was on the Mall, and yes, I did swing by the Public Service Recognition thing on the Mall. "PUBLIC WELCOME!" said the sign, but it would have been more convincing if that sign hadn't been on a chain-link fence surrounding the whole area, with metal detectors at the entrances. Jeez, if you're going to do an event on THE MALL, make it open. There was enough firepower in those tents to take care of any troublemakers.

So not feeling like waiting in line to empty my pockets before going in, I turned right around and went to the Asian Fiesta on Pennsylvania Avenue instead. Security was unobtrusive, but they did have sword-wielding ninja children. The food was also good, and no, I wasn't hungry again in an hour.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Astounding event today in Federal Diary Live -- there was no kvetching about DHS this week at all! Most of the talk was about Public Service Recognition Week (which lasts through the 7th, so there's still time to get gifts for the civil servants you like best - not that Hallmark has jumped on this one for some unfathomable reason) and the events on the Mall. I may have to swing by to see what that's all about, if only to see Rex the Mountain Lion.

Even though Rex really disturbs me. To the point where I spent a good part of the weekend trying to figure out why. The answer I came up with is that I just don't see a connection. How does a family of mountain lions fit in with preparedness? Ready Rex, OK, I could see that, but Rex the Mountain Lion? It's clumsy and doesn't flow off the tongue. There's just no art to it.

This, on the other hand, I get and appreciate. Excerpt: What are your worst experiences?
Rex: Definitely doing those home-security demonstrations with duct tape. It gets stuck in my fur, and it hurts pulling it off. Also, a football team in Spokane heckled me by calling me "Brokeback Mountain Lion," because of my cowboy outfit. What keeps you from mauling children on your P.R. tours?
Rex: Well, Mr. Cheney has an itchy trigger finger.

And here's a look at what might have been.
Lone property-owning holdout against developers in Washington. The accompanying picture shows a single house with a huge pit behind it. And wait a minute, what's that in the background? Why, it's the Chester Arthur Building, the former headquarters of INS. The neighborhood is obviously coming up in the world, which used to feature homeless people and transvestite prostitutes.

Walking around Washington it's easy to see evidence of other people who refused to sell. Variety is the spice of life and all, I guess, but maybe it has something to do with Washington architecture. All the buildings look pretty much the same around here, short, squatty cracker boxes that take up most of the block. A little ornamentation would help differentiate the things.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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