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How the Broken Immigration System Took a Toll on My Love for America

Seeing how America feels about its immigrants changed how I feel about America.
October 3, 2022
How the Broken Immigration System Took a Toll on My Love for America
(Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Imagine living in purgatory, and your sin is coming to America. That’s how my life has been for years. I live in the United States legally, but I don’t have a legal status. I’m not here on a visa, and I’m not a resident either. I just . . . am. Technically I’m seeking political asylum, but it’s more accurate to say that I’ve given up on getting political asylum.

A thirty-minute asylum interview is all I need to get out of purgatory, but it’s been more than five years and there has been no progress. Since May 2017, when I submitted my application, I haven’t heard back. I’m here legally, but without a status. My only contact with the Department of Homeland Security has been a biennial request to renew my work authorization ID and a $420 fee. And even at that, the process doesn’t exactly give the impression of government competence at the developed-world scale. It’s been more than six months since I’ve requested renewal without result. In the meantime, I literally haven’t had a valid ID since March. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced the extension of expired IDs for 90 days, then 180 days, and most recently 540 days. Their administrative generosity doesn’t make it any easier to order a drink with an expired ID, much less get through airport security. USCIS says that I should use my passport in the meantime. That might help if I had a government that would renew my passport for me, but the government of my former country, Iran, wants me in the notorious Evin Prison. USCIS knows about this; the documentation is part of my asylum claim.

Delays in the process have a lot to do with staff shortages. USCIS is a self-funded agency and does not rely on congressional appropriations—a policy that has brought the agency to near-insolvency, which is why it let go of thousands of staffers two years ago, adding to the delays.

When I lived in Hungary, immediately before moving to the United States, I would show up at an office when I needed my immigration ID renewed. The whole process would take half an hour—including wait time—and they printed it for me right there. My Hungarian friends would complain about how incompetent their government bureaucracy is compared to the rest of the European Union. But the level of bureaucratic delays and incompetence I’ve experienced in the United States is something I hadn’t even seen in Iran. It’s embarrassing for the world’s mightiest and richest country.

Sometimes we hear that the asylum system is what’s really wrong with our immigration system; that people come here for whatever reason, claim asylum, and are then free to disappear into the country. Maybe that happens—though just because USCIS hasn’t bothered to find me doesn’t mean I disappeared. In fact, I’d rather like to be found. (In case you’re wondering, the IRS has no trouble figuring out who and where I am.) As soon as they let me know that I need to show up, I’ll crawl there if I need to.

I applied for asylum because, in 2016, a newspaper affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps published my picture, along with others’, on its front page. The headline called me a traitor. (Can you betray something if you never pledged loyalty to it in the first place?) Since then, the Islamic Republic has been bleeding popularity, while younger immigrants from Iran have been forming dissident groups in free countries. The capital of the free world, Washington, D.C., is naturally the capital of these dissident networks, too. And that’s where I work, with Iranian hitmen all around me. Iran has a long history of assassinating and abducting dissidents and foreigners, the most recent cases being those of Salman Rushdie and Masih Alinejad. They are obviously more prominent figures than I am, but sometimes I think that makes me an easier target. Rushdie was an American citizen—I am stateless. I have no senator or congressman to call on. There’s no government on Earth with a responsibility to protect me or even protest if I were the victim of transnational repression. My demise would be an uncomfortable headline, which, like all headlines, would soon be superseded.

Sometimes I imagine what being the victim of transnational repression might be like. About once a week, I imagine my apartment’s door being knocked down by two guys coming in to kidnap me. What do I do? The FBI monitors chatter about John Bolton and Mike Pompeo and Masih Alinejad and Roya Hakakian. But they are citizens. If there’s ever a plot against me, would they care? The Voice of America Persian service is calling to do an interview with me. Should I do it? Do I want to remind the regime that I exist? With professional success comes the possibility of personal danger.

Speaking of professional success, have you ever noticed how many jobs you can’t get if you’re not a citizen? Recently, a friend sent me a fellowship at a respected security think tank to apply for, and it was a great fit. U.S. citizens only. I’ve lost count of the number of jobs for which I’m overqualified but ineligible because I don’t have an American passport or green card. I’m not even a resident. After more than eight years in the United States, I’m nothing.

It’s not just jobs, either. Interest rates are several times what they would be for someone with a guarantee of staying here. If I want to travel somewhere outside the United States, I have to send an official request to the Department of Homeland Security six to eight months in advance, along with $800—otherwise I can’t leave the country. It’s a little like living in the former Soviet Union, in a way, except Canada is a much more beckoning destination than Kazakhstan.

America’s immigration problem has a lot to do with cynicism, and there is no consensus among Americans about what to do about illegal immigration. The Biden administration has inherited a mess from its predecessors and Congress, and seems intent on handing down the hideous heirloom again. (It doesn’t help that mainstream media outlets have almost entirely ignored immigration, ceding the issue to right-wing media to present it however it helps them.)

The beginning of the asylum and refugee problem goes back to the Obama administration’s panicky, incompetent response to Republican outcries about border crises, which, unlike the “caravans” we hear about every midterm season, were real. The crisis overlapped with the beginning of the war against the Islamic State and sporadic terror attacks. Add to this pre-existing security concerns about thousands of migrants crossing the border. The administration decided to reallocate Department of Homeland Security resources, including immigration case officers (known as “immigration judges” although they work for the executive branch), to background checks and screening on the border-crossers. Not coincidentally, this is when immigrants learned that applying for asylum could be a side door into the country.

When someone applies for asylum in the United States, they are given a work authorization and are allowed to stay—again, without any status but also without violating the law—until the USCIS processes the case to either be approved for asylum or deported. Sometimes asylees really do get lost in the country and skip the hearing—no hearing, no deportation. The Trump administration decided to fix the problem by adopting a “last-come, first-served” policy: Immigrants applying for asylum since 2018 will go ahead of everybody else in the system. So each new asylum seeker goes ahead of me and further delays my case.

Under U.S. law, an asylum case must be processed within 180 days. During the George W. Bush administration, it would take a few weeks for an applicant to come out of the system—not counting Global War on Terror-related delays. When Obama left office, because of the growing border crisis and the reduction in case officers, wait times had stretched to four or five years. Under Trump, for those who applied before the “last come, first served” policy, the wait time doubled to around eight years. The Biden administration has kept both policies but also exacerbated the surge at the southern border. The wait time is now well north of a decade.

Congress has shown no interest in fixing the problem. Republicans have an interest in prolonging it because their base voters are mobilized by the ongoing crisis. Democrats are the same because they too can mobilize their base by pointing to Republican reaction and occasional bigotry.

The Biden administration has, reportedly, considered marginal reforms but decided against them. According to Andrea Flores, a former official at the National Security Council tasked with border management, the proposals have been killed by Ron Klain, Susan Rice, and Jake Sullivan—Biden’s chief of staff, head of domestic policy, and national security advisor.

There are many problems with the U.S. immigration system, but one is a simple staff shortage. Whatever one thinks of border security and broader immigration policy, America is failing to meet its current legal obligations—obligations under law to Americans and immigrants—because the system is not properly funded and staffed. The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have been eager to increase funding for all kinds of programs, from climate change to the Internal Revenue Service. Why not the immigration system? Maybe they lack the political will, leadership skill, or simple imagination to do something that would be good for the country but upset part of their electoral coalition. Then again, how many Americans would oppose faster hearing dates for asylum seekers? Maybe they’re just paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. But they should bear in mind that their inaction isn’t victimless.

By the time I become a U.S. citizen—inshallah—I’ll have been here for around two decades, even though the legal promise is around six years.

I used to look at other immigrants—no matter how they came here—as fellow Americans by choice, my brothers and sisters. Now I can’t help but realize that they are my competition.

I came to this country out of love, but America turned into a religion for me. Yet years in limbo have robbed me of my faith. At this point, if I could move to an EU country, or Canada, or Australia, or any decent country, I would. But without a passport, I’m stuck here.

I used to love America and its immigration story romantically. And, if I ever do, by some miracle, move away, I’ll still root for America from afar because I believe the future of humanity is tied up with its success. But, after five years of unrequited love, I have to admit that the passion is gone.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.