Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Far Better Approach for the Huddled Masses

This week the Obama policy hydra grew another head when they re-invigorated the immigration debate. He began:

"I'm confident if we enter into this with the notion that this is a nation of laws that have to be observed and this is a nation of immigrants, then we're going to create a stronger nation for our children and our grandchildren."
Somewhere in the background, the now-familiar notes of Bad Religion could be heard, but only momentarily. Then he got down to business, launching 2 of his 5 immigration campaign promises:
  • "Remove incentives to enter illegally" (by cracking down on employers who hire illegals)
  • "Bring people out of the shadows" (with his "get to the back of the line" amnesty program)

The other three-fifths of his immigration platform are:

  • "Create secure borders"
  • "Improve our immigration system"
  • and "Work with Mexico"

You can hardly disagree with that. On immigration, he's got his principles mostly right. This is one case where stating the obvious is quite enough. Immigration is a simple supply-and-demand game.

Following his lead, I'll make another self-evident statement: The challenge comes where the rubber meets the road. And this is where he and I disagree. His moves this week were populist. Go after the employers. Blame it on those fat-cat richie-riches whose sin is creating jobs without asking for a bailout. Oh, and PS - his "new" idea is already law in the states receiving the brunt of the immigration influx.

In the spirit of this 4th of July weekend, I feel it's my duty to offer a helping hand.

Step 1 is to provide people with a functional, efficient legal path to enter the country. If we want to avoid the "upside down" demographic nightmare of Japan and Europe, we need a steady supply of new, hungry labor. There will always be richer and poorer countries. People in the latter will always quest for a better future. Unless the US economy goes entirely tits over teakettle from debt or appeasement, people will want in. Without a viable alternative, enforcement is a black hole. It would take Martial law and Big Brother to stop the natural forces of supply and demand.

Sadly, today's legal path is a joke. Bush and Iraq have gotten all the bad press, but in truth, nation's most embarrassing interaction with the rest of the world is the nightmarish gauntlet we put our future fellow citizens through. The Visa process. An ideal process would filter for enterprising, aggressive, ambitious, smart, yet moral people. Instead, that ilk are slowly beaten into bureaucratic submission in favor of the moneyed, the connected and the placidly patient. By the time people get here, they feel betrayed and exhausted. Instead of being welcomed into the promised land of opportunity, they've had to beat their heads against a wall of incompetent, illogical, uncaring, opaque INS bureaucracy, often for years. Along the way, they are subjected to a humiliatingly invasive dressing-down and what, under other circumstances, would be considered a bribe. The backlog of applications is measured in hundreds of thousands. Once the bureaucrats finally get to the application, God forbid there's an oversight or mistake in the application, Those are summarily rejected, and must go to the back of the line. Even upon arriving, they must continue a gauntlet of separation from family, disclosures and an array of prohibitions.

(side note: Washington's typical approach of re-branding the mess with a new acronym has, curiously, not resolved the underlying issues. Who'da thunk it?)

For the truly "hungry" who truly believe in and embody the American Dream, every sign points underground. If they can't hop on the American train on our terms, they must do it on theirs. Tragically, once underground, it's prohibitively hard to re-emerge. We systematically criminalize those we need the most.

Once we've done that, it's impossible to differentiate these people from the truly undesirables (terrorists, criminals, mooches). Enforcement and punishment gets doled out equally on the good and the bad. What a colossal waste!

There IS a better way. Picture this ...

An applicant logs on to the USCIS website. They follow a guided "wizard" which explains the process and then walks them through a sequence of context-sensitive questions (meaning, their response to one question determines what additional questions must be asked) a'la Turbotax. After answering all the questions, the website creates their application file. It allows them to upload all necessary supporting information. It passes their responses through a set of automated checks to ensure that everything is in order. No more reject-and-resubmit. It then confirms that they've completed the application and explains the process to come, mapping out a specific set of "milestones" which, if successfully passed, will lead to their ultimate admittance. Average durations between each milestone should be shown.

The relationship shouldn't end there. The applicant should be given multiple avenues to get more information (forums, emails, instant messaging, phone... just like any bank or airline offers). They should be able to log back onto the site later to check their status. They should be notified when a milestone is reached or if they need to provide any additional or corrected information.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the USCIS, the application should be received and passed through an automated set of information collection and assessment processes:

  1. Verification of the information provided by the applicant against 3rd party sources. This might include commercial databases (identity verification services, credit bureaus, etc), US government, foreign government, and supra-national organization databases. This technology exists in many industries today.
  2. Scoring to determine the probable accuracy. How sure are we that they are who they say they are? A low score doesn't necessarily mean they're bad. It means more information must be collected before the application process can continue.
  3. Identification of any showstoppers to admittance (international warrant, terrorist connections, etc). Again, this technology is quite mature. Financial institutions have done this for years.
  4. Identification of any red flags to be further investigated. Are they on any watch lists? What does Google say about them? Have they made bad news in the past? Have they been in a foreign government or military? Do they come from a sketchy country? Do they seem to have no reason for coming? Have they been denied or kicked out previously? Again, these are not auto-deny rules. They are designed to catch special cases which require deeper analysis. By separating these out, we ensure that the run-of-the-mill applicants are fast-tracked through the process without getting stuck in the "hopper" behind a tough case.
  5. Red Flag files are automatically routed to a specially-trained team of analysts for review. Where possible, additional information requests are initiated automatically before an analyst starts work on the file. Please note: this is the first time a person has had to intervene at all. At the conclusion, the analyst places the appropriate "tags" on the file and moves it back into the regular process.
  6. Assuming the above have satisfactory results, the next determination is the desirability score of the applicant. This answers a number of questions: How risky would it be to let them in based on their demographics (and any "tags" placed on the file above)? How likely are they to cause trouble? How likely are they to be a net economic gain to the country? Do they help the USCIS toward established targets (diversity of applicants by various categories such as nationality, age, profession, education, religion, etc, etc, etc)? What is their commitment level to the US (are they bringing their whole family? are they just coming for school or a short-term job? do they have financial investments here?) Before you call me a Nazi, please understand that most of these considerations are already in place today at a subjective level.
  7. The desirability score determines their place in line. Top-tier scores are given a green light immediately. Mid-tier scores might mean that the applicant is subject to immigration capacity controls (more below). Low-tier scores would be denied.
  8. The applicant is informed of their approval or denial. They are provided with all the information, requirements, subsequent steps, etc necessary to complete the process or contest the determination.

Capacity controls would replace the current, arbitrary and coarse quota-by-country-with-countless-exceptions system. Under the current system, it is not uncommon for a country's quarterly quota to be filled within hours. Capacity controls are far easier to manage ... there's only one parameter: the total capacity the country (or the immigration process) can take right now.

The country-specific part of the old quota system is integrated into the desirability score, allowing for more nuanced, sophisticated, and flexible control over who comes in. Importantly, since this is but one component of the overall score, it can be balanced against other factors. This ensures that the applicant is looked at holistically, rather than being rejected on a single criterion. Say, for example, the US gets desperate for dentists. A dentist from Chile wants to come here. Chile just so happens to be in the middle of a recession ... maybe even some political turmoil, so there's been a recent surge in Chilean applicants. We should not summarily reject the dentist just because he got in line too late, behind a hodge-podge of skilled and unskilled countrymen.

That's just a start, of course, but it's the right start. Once the basic legal path is in place and efficient, we'll find that the enforcement challenge is much more manageable. Upcoming blogs will take on the various aspects of that puzzle piece: employer enforcement, amnesty, deportation of law-breakers, sensible, contextual limitations on use of public services, walls, national IDs, border patrols ... I'll also dedicate blogs to a better mix of visa flavors: guest workers, students, citizens-to-be, international men of mystery. I'll also give more insight into the "guts" of the scoring algorithms I envision ... In the mean time, I've given plenty of meat to chew on ... GET BUSY GUYS!

No comments: