From the moment I started working at NIJC, in the spring of 2018, the Trump administration has been implementing its incessant attacks on the immigration system. Many of these attacks made the headlines; others didn’t. But it’s the little things, the things that no one sees – not our clients, not the public – that have made these past few years, and specifically the last few months, so difficult and demoralizing.
Chief among these is the senseless and heartless rejections and denials of applications correctly filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These include applications for work authorization, family-based immigration, relief for survivors of crimes, applications for asylum, and other forms of relief or deferred action that can protect the applicant from deportation. In other words, these applications are essential for the lives of our clients. Any delays in the process can be frustrating and scary.
If it were one or two occasional erroneous rejections, we could easily right the wrongs and forget about them. Nevertheless, our own experience and that of other legal service providers across the country suggests that these are not one-off rejections and denials, but a pattern of weaponized bureaucracy. Sometimes we wonder amongst ourselves if there are prizes for USCIS employees who can reject or deny the most filings. How else would they be motivated to come up with such ridiculous reasons to reject perfectly good filings, all while knowing how critical these applications are for peoples’ lives?
A few examples of erroneous rejections (most of which we have seen multiple times):
- Rejections for leaving a box blank that doesn’t require an answer (i.e. when it doesn’t apply to the applicant)
- Rejections for not putting N/A in every box, when in fact the applicant HAS written N/A in every box that is not applicable to them
- Rejections for not including evidence that isn’t required
- Rejecting applications by stating that certain required evidence wasn’t included, when it actually was, or without first providing an opportunity for the applicant to provide the evidence, as was the standard process in the past
- Rejections for not including documentation that the government took from the applicant in detention and kept (and therefore should be able to access)
- Rejections with no stated reason – literally, in the rejection letter, they give no reason for the rejection
- Rejecting a filing because the client does not have a pending hearing date in the immigration court due to hearing dates being rescheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and failing to recognize that this client’s case is still pending even without the existence of a hearing date
- Rejecting an application because a name was typed instead of handwritten in a box
In many cases, we can refile the clients’ documents, often losing only our time. But in some cases, even trivial rejections can affect our clients’ cases negatively. This has been especially true of late, with new rules and increased fees looming on the horizon. If a filing is rejected after a new rule or fee increase goes into effect, that could mean that the client no longer qualifies or must pay much more in order to refile. They may also have to deal with consequences that wouldn’t have affected them before, such as having missed deadlines or aging out of eligibility for a certain benefit.
For each filing, my colleagues and I scour every little detail. We make sure everything is in place, we read and re-read the instructions, we do everything right—no easy feat given that the administration is constantly issuing rule changes and document updates. And then … we still get rejected. The arbitrary nature of these rejections is demoralizing. We have been forced to warn clients ahead of time that, despite knowing we’ve done everything correctly, their filing might still be rejected for some erroneous and unforeseen reason.
It’s already hard to build rapport with clients, especially during a pandemic that prevents us from having almost any in-person communication. In order to build the strongest case for our clients, we must ask them to share with us the most traumatic and intimate details of their lives. Having their filings rejected for no reason seeds distrust. There’s only so much we can explain about the incompetence of whomever is rejecting and denying our filings on behalf of the U.S. government. At some point, we worry the clients must wonder if it’s really always the fault of the government.
Fortunately, a coalition of immigration legal service providers and rights organizations have filed a lawsuit challenging the change in policy leading to some of the most persistent reasons for these nonsensical rejections: USCIS’ policy of rejecting applications for humanitarian benefits that have any blank response field, even where the question is not applicable. It’s a start to ending a discriminatory practice that has affected thousands of immigrants but appears in no law book or policy memo, was not given any opportunity for review or comment by the public, and made no headlines. While it is frustrating that we need to file lawsuits to get USCIS to do their jobs, it is even more frustrating for us—and for our clients, whose lives hang in the balance—to have applications senselessly rejected.
Maddy Garber was a paralegal in NIJC's Goshen, IN office. She worked on the Family Integrity Project, Asylum, and ILD.