Immigration process leaves a harsh imprint

Have we at last made the nation's immigration laws as convoluted as they can possibly be? After stymieing foreigners for decades, these rules have now grown so baroque that even the nation's luminaries appear no longer able or willing to comply with them.

Today, it seems, a presidential administration simply isn't complete without the tardy discovery of an immigration scandal to render a cabinet nomination pear-shaped.

First Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood, then Linda Chavez, and now Bernard Kerik. And if these nominees - each so close to running the very agencies charged with regulating immigrants - cannot manage to abide by the rules, what hope is there for the immigrants themselves?

One of the largest impediments to immigration reform is the fact that the only people able to change the law - US citizens - are those least governed by them. Foreigners, on the other hand, can't vote. But now that citizens are confronted with the quadrennial demonstration of just how unsavory the immigration process can be - even for would-be cabinet secretaries - perhaps they might exercise their democratic privilege to sort things out.

Consider one example of what the permanent-residency process can be like for someone eager to win a green card. I first applied for an F-1 visa in order to attend college in America back in 1991. Since then, I have nurtured an enduring and emasculating courtship with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which, when we first met, was called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I have spent 13 years wandering the labyrinth of the US immigration process, cycling through an alphabet of other temporary visas (B-2, J-1, H-1B), queuing for hours at American embassies in Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, and Dublin, and submitting to a battery of biometric investigations. I have, in essence, been a bumpkin stumbling my way through the ritual of Versailles.

When I first filed my green card application, the process typically took about 18 months. Three years later, I still had no green card - it kept receding like a sadistic swimming instructor. Along the way, the government demanded - and received from me - a complete physical examination, including tests for tuberculosis, syphilis, HIV, and mental illness. I also had to be fingerprinted - twice - the second time when the USCIS deemed the first set invalid because the USCIS was taking too long. (If fingerprints go stale after a year, what's the point?) At one stage, my paperwork was put on hold for six months when the government office handling it ran out of security paper with the agency's new logo. Truly, there is nothing like the US immigration process to remind one of life in a third-world country.

But America, if not its bureaucracy, is well worth the struggle, and when I received my green card in the mail just a few weeks ago, I was genuinely delighted.

My case, though, is the easy one: I am a native English speaker, white, from Ireland, and I have degrees from an American university and law school. My name isn't exactly common, but it's certainly not Islamic.

For others, the process is far more difficult, and the steps they take to be allowed into the country are both a celebration of American democracy and an indictment of American immigration policy.

For the mere chance to win a green card, hopeful seekers will do almost anything. Attorneys' fees and filing costs can, over the years and decades the process takes, add up to an enormous cost. Candidates abound for "Gana la Verde" ("Win the Green"), the Spanish-language "Fear Factor" show that subjects contestants to unspeakable degradation - typically by feeding them meals scavenged from formicaries and abattoirs - simply for the possibility of winning legal help with acquiring a green card. And almost 40 foreigners, whose immigration processing was expedited through military enlistment, have sacrificed their lives for the US in Iraq.

With world opinion of the US wearing a little threadbare, perhaps it's time to tidy up the nation's welcome mat for those foreigners still eager to hail Columbia.

The president and Congress should apply the same focus to immigration that they have to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and appoint knowledgeable commissioners to make the enforcement of immigration laws, regardless of their substance, more comprehensible and efficient.

William Birdthistle was born in Cork, Ireland, and is now an attorney in Boston.

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