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USCIS Censorship

When it comes to transparency in government activities there are two extremes:

On the one hand, there is the total freedom of information sought by many advocates of democracy, the “open covenants, openly arrived at” concept of Woodrow Wilson.

On the other there is the highly efficient censorship of a dictatorship, such as that of North Korea.

And in the middle there is the not-so-competent, partial censorship of USCIS’s review body, the Office of Administrative Appeals, a semi-judicial entity that handles appeals from many USCIS staff decisions.

For reasons perhaps lost in history, OAA issues its decisions but carefully blocks out not only the names of the aliens involved, but those of the lawyers and the petitioners (often employers), too. Routinely, in all other American court systems, the names of the individuals, the corporations and their lawyers are noted for all to see – as they should be.

I decided to look at a sampling of the most recent OAA cases involving R-1 (religious workers) because of the remarkable level of fraud found in the program several years ago. In fact, three different government agencies issued formal reports on the program, each finding a fraud rate of about 30 percent.

This exercise also gave me an opportunity to examine some of the uses and abuses of the religious workers program; there are, incidentally, both R-1 nonimmigrant workers, and green card holders who have adjusted from the R-1 status. The decisions I examined dealt with the latter part of the program.

The small sample consisted of all OAA decisions in this category made during the period April 30 through May 20, 2010.

In all 16 instances the system had eliminated the names of the lawyers, the aliens, the alien’s would-be employers, and the agency’s decision-maker or decision-makers, obliterating them from the face pages of the decisions. However, often the names of the religious entities, or bits of data about them, were mentioned in the text of the decisions, but these were sometimes not erased by the clerks. In other instances the useful data had been wiped out.

In some documents there would be little information beyond the fact that a church, for instance, had filed a petition. In others one can find the full names of the applicant organizations, and once that of the group’s leader as well. Reading quasi-judicial decisions is not fun, generally, but pouring through the OAA decisions to see what you can find out that the government does not want you to know, can be stimulating.

The big picture, as I have noted earlier, is that while most religious Americans are associated with the major religious establishments – the big Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish entities – most of the problems with the R-1 program relate to less prominent bodies.

Of the 16 decisions read, only four can be clearly identified with the major religious establishments; there was a single Catholic case, one Jewish case, and two Protestant ones, each of the entities being at least partially identified in the texts of the decisions.

The rest of the decisions dealt with religious organizations described in the accidentally uncensored texts as follows:

“…a Pentecostal Christian church of the Assemblies of God denomination . . . ”

An entity using “a Course of Miracles” as a text, probably the Foundation for Inner Peace.

“…Jesus Christ Is Lord Church, The Bronx, New York . . . ”

“…The International Association of Scientologists . . . ”

“… a mosque . . . ”

“…Church of God . . . Northeastern Hispanic Region . . . Alexandria, Virginia.”

A church, not otherwise described, located in either Glendale or Phoenix, Arizona.

And five others simply designated as “churches.”

Perhaps the most interesting single case involved what might be regarded as a gutsy decision by USCIS and OAA, or perhaps an example of clerical sloppiness in a nunnery. A government official needs to be pretty sure of the facts before telling a group of nuns, an arm of the powerful Catholic Church, that it “had not established that it is a bona fide nonprofit religious organization.” That’s what happened in this case.

Given the partial censorship imposed in these decisions, all we know is that the petitioner is ” . . . a Roman Catholic religious order . . . ” whose initials are DMMM.

DMMM’s problems with USCIS started with the address that the order used, apparently in Houston, when it applied for a green card for one of its nuns. When DHS sent around an investigator to check on the institution, he found a house in a residential area with nobody home, not a church. DMMM had also failed to provide a phone number for that place on the application (Form I-360). (The text suggests that the investigator made no second visit to the location.)

Understandably, DHS decided to look a little further. It found that DMMM had not filed the appropriate IRS forms, including none that linked the IRS charity status to the address used on the petition. There were several other, similar problems; USCIS staff said no; the nunnery appealed, and the OAA said no again.

Further, beneficiaries in this program are supposed to be full-time religious workers; in one instance, this in an African Methodist Episcopal church, the would-be green card worked only part time, and then largely as a janitor.

Several of the other OAA decisions dwelled on, or touched on, the levels of earnings paid to the potential green card recipients; USCIS is not supposed to admit people who would need to go on welfare. In several cases, the payments to the religious workers, or the documentation thereof, or both, were pretty scanty.

This is, after all, a foreign-worker program, and such programs often offer inadequate wages.

In the AME case “IRS W-2 and Tax Statements indicate that the petitioner [i.e., the church] paid the beneficiary $2,100 in 2006 and $6,704.50 in 2008.”

In the case which probably involved the Foundation for Inner Peace (or a similar group), the investigator, who found the beneficiary cleaning drainage pipes, said that the “petitioning organization had over $6 million in assets.” The report continued “The beneficiary reported $3,600 of in-kind compensation (room and board) on her 2006 return, and reported $3,600 in ‘wages, salaries, tips, etc.’ on her 2007 return.”

Interestingly, in none of the 16 cases did the OAA overturn the negative findings of the USCIS staff and order that a green card be granted.

In 12 cases it dismissed (or rejected) the appeals, and in the four others OAA remanded the case back to the staff for further consideration.