Originally Published in The Washington Post
Catherine Rampell - August 6, 2020
“Middle name” field left blank because the applicant does not have a middle name? Sorry, your application gets rejected. No apartment number because you live in a house? You’re rejected, too.
No address given for your parents because they’re dead? No siblings named because you’re an only child? No work history dates because you’re an 8-year-old kid?
All real cases, all rejected.
President Trump’s “wall” has been built not of steel or concrete but of paperwork and red tape. This no-blanks policy was just the latest bureaucratic change made without consent from Congress nor the (legally required) formal rulemaking process.
Asked how this persnickety processing change serves the public interest, a USCIS spokesperson emailed, “Complete applications are necessary for our adjudicators to preserve the integrity of our immigration system and ensure they are able to confirm identities, as well as an applicant’s immigration and criminal history, to determine the applicant’s eligibility.”
Seems more likely it’s about preventing eligible immigrants from getting visas.
“It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” says Cecelia Friedman Levin, senior policy counsel at Asista, a nonprofit that represents immigrant survivors of violence.
After an initial flood of confusing rejection letters, immigration attorneys wised up. Lawyers spent additional hours combing through every field, meticulously typing “N/A” or “none” in all blanks even when doing so seemed superfluous.
In certain fields, it’s not possible to digitally type in the magic words “none” or “N/A,” because USCIS coded the PDF to allow entries of numbers only. So, attorneys began handwriting “N/A” across forms. Some scrounged up typewriters. Others special-ordered “N/A” rubber stamps.
All this busywork took up a tremendous amount of time. But at least applicants had a way to jump through this hoop.
So USCIS adapted — by requiring unsuspecting third parties to clear the same hurdle.
In late June, new fine print appeared on USCIS’s website. It said the no-blanks policy would extend to at least one document that must be filled out by law enforcement officials — someone over whom immigrants and their lawyers had no control. These officials must complete and sign a form certifying that immigrants applying for the crime-victim (U) visa are assisting with an investigation or prosecution.
Immigration attorneys say that even when they have good relationships with law enforcement, completing these certifications can require months of nudging, cajoling and begging.
“Sometimes the police department is like five people,” said Josh Doherty, a lawyer at the nonprofit Ayuda. “Understandably, if you are an agency of five people, and you’re responsible for public safety and traffic enforcement, and all these other different things, you might miss an email or letter.”
Now, attorneys must persuade these law enforcement agencies to please, please, please, redo all the forms they already signed, and fill out “N/A” everywhere possible, no matter how gratuitous it seems.
“These are officers who have sometimes already gone above and beyond to recertify the case during covid, and now we have to bother them again to ask for these cosmetic changes,” says Safiya N. Morgan, senior staff attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group.
Separately, in recent months, at least two other attorneys have received denials from USCIS for blanks on other forms filled out by third parties — in both cases, a medical examination reportrequired for green card applications. That document is signed by a USCIS-certified physician and submitted to the agency in a sealed envelope. Immigrants are not allowed to even view the completed form to make sure the doctor left nothing blank.
Unlike with the law enforcement certifications, USCIS has not publicly confirmed whether it is systemically applying its no-blanks policy to medical forms, or if those denials were perhaps the action of a rogue official. Alerts on USCIS’s website flag the no-blanks policy only for asylum, crime-victim and trafficking-victim visas, despite rejections lawyers have received for blanks on other types of applications. The agency did not respond to questions about how or when it was deciding to enforce the policy.
This Kafkaesque processing change isn’t merely vindictive. It’s a huge waste of resources, for the people filling out the forms and those processing them. In fact, USCIS is going broke partly because it’s spending so many more person-hours looking for excuses to reject eligible immigrants.