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

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.


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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/14/2020 - 03:32 pm.

    My question about immigration is, to what extent is the idea of the necessity of immigration tied to economic doctrine and this idea found no where in nature, that we must have eternal growth?

    Are there no limits? If we had a “just” immigration system in the context of this article, are we to let in everyone who seeks asylum, as long as they are being honest?

    Indeed, the restrictions outlined here are kafkaesque; however it does not necessarily follow that a more “just” system would be truly logical, or honest, if it is founded on a principle of eternal growth.

    • Submitted by kurt nelson on 02/15/2020 - 12:04 pm.

      Last week, I attended a luncheon in Kalispell MT, sponsored by the BBB and I believe the regional banking association. Neel Kashkari was the keynote speaker. He spoke of the vital importance of immigration, and the consensus among economists is that if the economy is going to continue to grow, immigration is the key. Here’s an link to his reasoning.

      https://www.minneapolisfed.org/article/2018/wsj-op-ed-immigration-is-practically-a-free-lunch-for-america

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/16/2020 - 01:08 pm.

        Following that logic, we must have growth in population eternally without limit. Eternal growth on a finite planet, contrary to the observed reality that the growth we have has given us systemic toxicity, species extinction, epic income inequality, eternal war profiteering and climate change.

        I would challenge Mr Kashkari to tell working poor Americans that immigration policy in America has been like a free lunch.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/16/2020 - 09:37 pm.

          I hope he does tell the the working poor that since its the truth. Sadly, there is this false and ignorant belief that immigration hurts the working poor. We need people like Kashkari to stand up to the racists and their lies.

          • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/17/2020 - 09:01 am.

            It is called labor arbitrage. Any economist knows the term. Flooding a country with cheap labor reduces labor costs domestically. Simple economics. That is one of the reasons Brexit happened: EU rules flooded Britain with cheap labor from eastern Europe, putting working poor Britians out of work.

            It is not legitimate to say that just because I point out what is a common economic understanding, at least among economists, that I must be a racist.

            Illegal immigration is labor arbitrage. It doesn’t matter who is the illegal immigrant, in race or ethnicity. And for a generation both parties ignored the fact that about 15 million low-skilled workers entered the country illegally.

            You will surely say, but they do the jobs regular Americans won’t do! But I would reply that it is kind of racist to say we need illegal immigrants to come and do our nastiest jobs for really low pay so we can have cheap chicken to eat or strawberries in February.

            • Submitted by kurt nelson on 02/17/2020 - 06:59 pm.

              The name of the article was a free lunch for america, not immigrants. Man, you really should tone down those thinly veiled tropes, they don’t help your argument.
              Since you didn’t read the thing, there was no mention of, how did you put it, “eternal growth”. What you missed was that immigration, not the kind of immigration the ignorant racist pres likes to tout, but legal immigration is what drives economies. It takes 18 years to grow a new worker, but just like that, we can add workers, at all levels, and that is what drives economies.

  2. Submitted by lisa miller on 02/14/2020 - 03:34 pm.

    Thank you for pointing out the insanity of bureaucracy–not just in immigration, but everywhere. Here’s hoping people read this and do what they can in what ever small way to challenge the silliness of rigid forms and computer lines.

  3. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 02/15/2020 - 09:18 am.

    What if you come from a country or culture where multiple middle names? Or where your “middle” name is traditionally your “last” name in our terms?

    There is plenty of space for judgment and compassion between rejecting refugees for typos and letting in anyone who applies.

    However, under the law, especially as interpreted by the current regime, fill in all the blanks is a convenient way to avoid exercising either quality.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/15/2020 - 11:38 am.

    Although I agree with Ms. Miller that bureaucrats can be petty, what’s happening here is a deliberate policy cruelty by the Trump administration, to make anyone who’s trying to apply for refuge or asylum or immigration to the U.S. suffer as much as Trump’s people can make them suffer.

    I remind everyone: on our tax forms, both for the IRS and MN’s Dept. of Revenue, we are told NOT to fill in any lines that do not apply to us, for which we have no numbers to fill in those lines with.

    Duh. Face Trump’s meannnes when you see it!

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/17/2020 - 03:07 pm.

    Anything to divide, and nothing to unite except to divide!

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