A short-lived defense of bureaucracy.

Saturday, October 18th, 2014
By: Jonathan MontagJ.D.

A couple of weeks someone was talking to me about how she wanted an accommodation from someone within a big bureaucracy. She did not get it and was perplexed and slightly angry that she got know. As she saw it, a little accommodation would have been more efficient not only for her but for the big bureacracy. Ever the contrarian, I explained that if certain things need to be accomplished by tens of thousands of people, part of the large bureaucracy, then having these tens of thousands of people each do what needs to be done their own way at their own speed, on their own clock would lead to disaster.

Invigorated by my positive spin on bureaucracy, I discussed the issue soon thereafter with an immigration lawyer colleague. He added another insight. If everyone was able to be flexible, then corruption could enter the system. A person with the authority over someone, like a boss over a subordinate or a cafeteria cashier over a customer, could exact fees or favors for service. It is this kind of corruption that many clients say they are escaping when they come to the United States. Often clients familiar with the corruption in their homelands expect that I have pull and can make things happen that should not or make things happen faster by greasing the wheels. Fortunately, there is little corruption visible in the immigration system. This is at least partially because the bureaucracy is somewhat inflexible.

Armed with my new magnanimousness towards bureaucracy and thus ready to face the large government immigration bureacracy with a patience and empathy and some gratitude for its incorruptibility, it did not take me long to become disabused of my theory. That is because the theory lacked an important component – that a bureaucracy also has to be efficient. Barring efficiency, you end up with an incorruptible but frustratingly inefficient organization.

In the last two weeks this is some of the shenanigans I had to deal with:

1) A client could not be considered for release from immigration detention until after his first court date, nearly a week later, because the officers in charge of releasing the client had to relinquish their file to the government attorneys to prepare for court a week before the hearing. Giving away the file for nearly a week had to happen even though the attorneys’ office is co-located with the officers’ office and preparation for court could not have lasted more that a few minutes.

2) Paperwork delivery was delayed because government officials would not accept documents I hand delivered to them at a detention center. The same paperwork had to be brought to the same front desk by Fedex.

3) A client’s interview for a green card was divided into two parts scheduled three weeks apart in two separate offices by two separate adjudicators. The first interview could not be completed because the officer did not have the file for the second interview. Three weeks later, the second interview could not be completed because that officer did not have the file from the first interview. These offices have been conducting interviews day after day for fifty years and yet twice the agency could not get two files to the right place at the right time twice.

4) A client’s case is stuck at a USCIS local office. To ask about a case requires making an appointment at the local office. Appointments are mainly unavailable or, if available, availability is two weeks out. Traveling to the office takes a half hour. Waiting for the appointment takes another hour. Then, more often than you would think, the answer you get is not satisfactory. USCIS implemented a new system, e-request, where you can fill out an online form to inquire about a case. The answer is supposed to come by email in a couple of weeks. I made the inquiry about the stuck case through e-request. I never got a response. The rule is that if the e-request does not work, you should call USCIS’s customer service telephone hotline. So I did. When I called, I was told that no officer was available right then and an officer would call me back in an hour and a half. Not often am I able to be at my desk for an hour and a half, but that day I was. An hour an a half later, an officer called me to tell me after a few minutes of computer searching that I would need to make an appointment at the local office. Hey, Officer, I did not set up e-request and the customer service hotline systems, you did. Three weeks down the drain.

I could provide examples of other recent screw ups – an appointment notice set for a day in 1970, or a request for evidence that requested a change on a certain page of form and also informing me that this same certain page was missing, which it wasn’t. But these kind of mistakes are clerical errors which are bound to happen. The four episodes above are systemic bureaucratic problems that will probably never be fixed because the bureaucracies are so large and intractable that the people involved in them would rather just shrug and express resignation than actually fix them. Posted October 18, 2014.


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