Friday, February 10, 2006

Power corrupts: the tyranny of the lowly immigration officer

Lowly bureaucrats in the immigration services, emboldened by increased powers and stressed by the threat of harsh punishments, are abusing "foreigners" (emphases mine):
Seized With Heavy Hand at Border, for Paperwork Errors - New York Times

...Though there are no statistics on such cases, the lawyers say they are seeing harsher treatment in situations involving paperwork errors or minor infractions. A political climate more hostile to foreigners, fears of being faulted for leniency and a lack of coordination among immigration agencies, they say, are leading officers to go overboard in cases that fit the government guidelines for prosecutorial discretion.

"I'm desperate," Emily Arroyo, the mother of the second grader, said last week, after prosecutors refused an immigration judge's suggestion that they drop the two-year-old deportation case against her son, José Arroyo Rodas. Instead, they demanded that she buy him a one-way ticket to Canada by next week.

"I'm American — they're making me leave my country, too, because of course I'm not going to let him go alone," said Ms. Arroyo, a hairstylist raised in Guatemala, who calculates that she has spent $10,000 in legal fees trying in vain to fix José's paperwork problem. But on Wednesday, hours after this reporter asked United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Washington for comment about the case, an agency spokesman, Marc Raimondi, said that prosecutors reviewing the matter had found that it met the guidelines for prosecutorial discretion. "A dismissal recommendation to the immigration judge is planned," he said.

... case like José's only confirms that without exceptional outside attention or high-level intervention, rigidity prevails, said Diane M. Butler, a Seattle lawyer who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association committee that works with Customs and Border Protection.

Most officers, she said, "are trying to do the right thing" but lack training in how to apply discretion. But, in some instances, she added, officers seem newly emboldened by campaigns against illegal immigration to express their resentment of foreigners by denying or delaying entry whenever possible. She said her business clients reported remarks like, " 'You're just trying to take jobs away from Americans.' "

Other immigrant advocates say that low-level employees often act out of fear. "The people on the front line are told that if they make a mistake, their jobs are gone," said Amy L. Peck, an immigration lawyer in Omaha who heads the association committee that works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "So that translates into this rigid — what one could also describe as extreme — policy of turning away and not using discretion in cases that scream for it."
Immigration officials combine the power of police, judge and jury. Such power is an intoxicating drug, especially for those with little experience in its use. Low level immigration staff suffer from both the intoxication of power and the fear of punishment for errors -- and errors are impossible to avoid in their job. Being human they have to make mistakes, and naturally they now err towards punishing the innocent.

The story caught my attention, however, because of some personal experiences. Even as a melanin-deficient euro immigrant from Canada I was told by an immigration security official that I was marrying my Yankee girl simply to enter the US (I managed to avoid laughing -- I'm not that dumb). I learned when overseas that there was a sharp rise in quality towards the top of the consular hierarchy, with very smart and capable people at more senior levels and remarkably ineffectual sorts lower down. My family has also run into minor but scary issues when traveling due to our motley family mix (the trick there is to avoid the immigration worker who's ethnicity matches the non-euro children -- and to carry documentation beyond a full set of passports).

The solution is to put more high level, higher paid staff in place to provide backup and make judgment calls. The folks at the bottom will need to err on the side of rigidity and suspicion, but they need to have experienced senior staff on call at all times to help make corrections. In the meantime, never ever look cross-eyed at any immigration or transportation official.

No comments: