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Immigration through the looking glass: our country’s fill-in-every-blank nonsense

Can you imagine having an application rejected because you don’t have a middle name and didn’t write “N/A” or “None”?  Sadly, this isn’t a figment of the imagination.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Can you imagine having an application rejected because you don’t have a middle name and didn’t write “N/A” or “None”?  Even worse, can you imagine imposing this requirement on victims of crime and asylum seekers?  Sadly, this isn’t a figment of the imagination — it’s what U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)  now requires:

“We may reject your Form I-918 or your Form I-918 Supplement A if you leave a field blank, unless the field is optional. Optional fields include the safe mailing address as well as fields you should only complete if you answered yes to a previous question. You must provide a response to all other questions, even if the response is ‘none,’ ‘unknown’ or ‘n/a.’  We will reject a Form I-918 or a Form I-918 Supplement A that has, for example, an empty field for middle name, for current immigration status, or for information pertaining to a spouse or child.”

In the Kafka-esque world of U.S. immigration policy, desperate asylum seekers are turned away for any reason that the government can invent: coming from the wrong country, torture and death threats from the wrong person, and now, this fill-in-every-blank nonsense. The Guardian reported on a few of the many cases:

    • A man who fled political persecution in Cuba and was rejected because his attorney did not list a middle name on his asylum application. The man does not have a middle name.
    • An asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo put a dash in the space to list other names used, because they had never used another name. The application was rejected because of the dash.
    • A child from El Salvador had two siblings. Their names were on the application and the spaces for a third and fourth sibling were blank. The application was rejected because of the blanks.

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While the USCIS instructions apply specifically to U-Visa applicants (victims of crime inside the United States who are cooperating with police) and to asylum applicants, attorneys already have seen other applications rejected or returned because of blank spaces.

Veena Iyer
Veena Iyer
Then there is the question of which word to use to fill in the blank spaces. When should you answer “none” and when should you answer “not applicable” or “unknown”? Will an application be rejected if you write “not applicable” instead of “none” for your non-existent spouse’s name? If you are your mother’s only child and have never seen your father, are your siblings “none” or “not applicable” or “unknown”?

In “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” words are slippery and meaning more so:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

When it comes to the meaning of immigration law, the Department of Homeland Security clearly intends to be the master.

Veena Iyer is the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

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