Tag Archives: Immigration Documents

USCIS Round Six… Green Card File Apparently “Misplaced”

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven, Round Eight

For those of you following the “Great Green Card Saga of 2011,” USCIS surprised us with a new frustration right at the end of the day today.

As I noted before, P’s advanced parole was finally correctly delivered and I DHLed it to Nepal in time for him to catch his 10/19 evening flight out of KTM. I actually expected a big hassle at the airport when he went through the customs and immigration line on 10/20, but he breezed through with no issues. I thought that was a positive sign that our luck was changing. Why is it whenever I start to think things are going okay, I get whapped again by my bad-luck-juju?

P’s Green Card interview was set for October 31st at 9am at the same USCIS Field Office in Lawrence, Massachusetts that I drove to in Round Four. As a refresher, that was the time I went in search of a tracking number (that was wrong) which supposedly went to an envelope that held P’s advanced parole, but instead was the tracking number for a fifteen pound box that included P’s immigration file for his Green Card interview. I actually saw the file with my own eyes. The person from the office leafed through the file in front of me looking for P’s advanced parole. I could have reached out and touched it. I guess I should have grabbed it and run.

So anyway… we thought we were good to go. We are having a Bhai Tikka dinner tonight at our house, we planned to stay cozy inside for the weekend (our area is due for a snow storm on Saturday night!) and I had already taken half a day off of work on Monday morning so that P and I could drive the hour to Lawrence, do the interview, and hopefully be through this next set of hurdles.

But instead, a woman named Terry from the Lawrence office called P at 3:25pm on Friday afternoon to say, “We might have to reschedule your interview, we seem to have misplaced your permanent resident application file.”

Again, I’m utterly shocked. If I was as careless with my student records at my work, the Department of Homeland Security could take away the ability of my university to host international students.

“But my wife was there two weeks ago and she saw my file with her own eyes! Are you sure it’s missing?” P asked.

“We are unable to locate it at this time. We might have to cancel.”

He asked if I could call her back right away to explain how I had been there and seen the file, to see if it could help clear up the situation. She said that their office was closing in a few minutes, but said she would pick up the phone if we called right back, and she gave him the number.

He called me, explained the situation, and was on the phone for a grand total of 1 minute, I looked up the date I was at the office (October 11th) and P’s Alien # and called right back. The clock read 3:30pm exactly.

I got the office’s automated voicemail saying that it was closed for the day.

What the eff again!

So now we have to wait all weekend, call the office at 7:30 in the morning on Monday, and try to figure out what is going on/beg them to do the interview. I can’t believe they messed up again. And the extra stinky part is—P is having knee surgery on November 8th, so if they delay too much longer we will be trekking to Lawrence with crutches and a cast after the surgery.

As you can probably tell, I’m a bit upset with USCIS again. Happy Friday.

USCIS Round Five, a Document, another Photo Question, and a Departure…

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven, Round Eight

So for those of you following P’s USCIS document saga I’ve got good news… he should be departing any minute from Tribhuvan International Airport in KTM. To recap, click on the links above.

I last left you sobbing in my office and drinking a bottle of wine in Connecticut with friends for consolation after USCIS sent P’s documents to the wrong address, sent me the wrong tracking number, and delayed the process yet again. I was so upset, and unreasonable, I drove two hours south to R and S’s place for the night. Besides the obvious jetlag bringing tears to my eyes, I got stuck in a rut thinking about how each new document issuance from USCIS took at least 4-5 days, and the fastest document mailing to Nepal from the US was at least 4-5 days, so with their latest screw up we would probably have to change P’s return tickets again—at $200 a pop—with no definite end in sight. It felt like the document errors might continue on in an endless careless cycle, like the USCIS staffer was angry at me personally for involving congressional help, and wanted to see how many times he could eff with me until I totally lost it.

The morning after my “crazy freak out” I drove back up to my office in Massachusetts and was shocked to see an email from the congressional liaison. In her usual abbreviated style it said, “Hello, the UPS tracking # for package to [congressional liaison]/[congressman] [congressman’s office address] is: XXXXXXXXXXX for next day delivery.” It didn’t say anything else. I checked the tracking number and it was already on its way east from Missouri.

I’m not quite sure what the congressional liaison did or who she contacted or what she said but apparently it worked. There was no way that the documents that were “returned to sender” the day before had already made it back to the Missouri USCIS Service Center, so someone must have issued a new document on the spot and stuck it in the mail.

I certainly had my doubts that this round of documentation was actually going to work. I had been fooled three times before. So I waited patiently, and without getting my hopes up, until the following day, and checked the tracking number again. The website confirmed that the package was already on a truck for delivery in the correct city in Massachusetts. Well that’s a good start, I thought. At 10:20am I received a message from the congressional liaison’s blackberry that said, “Your documents are in my office, do you want to pick them up”—I tossed on my coat and fired back a message, “I’ll be there in ten minutes!” and ran out to my car.

She was in a meeting when I arrived at the office, but she saw me coming through the glass conference room window that faced the street. She greeted me in the hallway with her arms extended, a USCIS envelope in-hand. I hugged her and simultaneously ripped open the letter.

“That’s him, right? That’s his photo?” She asked.

“Yes!”

“And all the information is correct?”

I quickly skimmed the letter, and everything seemed in order. I thanked her again, and again, and probably a third time too, then I was back out the door and in my car, heading back to my office to call P in KTM.

P was on google chat when I got back to the office. He had been tracking the package too and messaged me as soon as he saw the delivery confirmation:

10:34 AM P: says it’s delivered

[he had to wait patiently for me to get back from the congressman’s office]

11:04 AM me: It is
I have it in my hand
I’m scanning it to you now
I was just going to call you

P: all good?

11:05 AM me: looks it
your info
your picture
there are 2 copies

P: phew!

me: I’m sending one and keeping one just in case

P: which pic
the one we sent later [Round Three]

me: I’m not sure which picture
you are wearing glasses
so I guess the later one, right?

P was asking about the picture on the document. When we first sent off his Green Card application packet we both went to a local photographer to get passport sized photos. When I applied for my first passport in 2002 I was able to wear my glasses, and since I wear my glasses every day I don’t think I look like myself in photos where I don’t have my glasses on. I remember arguing a bit with the photographer about whether or not I could wear my glasses in my passport photo, which would have been my preference, but he refused to take pictures of either of us in glasses, so all our original photos were sans spectacles.

If you remember back to Round Three, the USCIS official in Missouri absolutely insisted that the ONLY way to fix the document problem [my photo on P’s paperwork] that they screwed up was to send a brand new hardcopy passport photo overnight mail to their office—even though they had six passport photos of P in his green card application sitting on this guy’s desk at the Service Center. As we were in Nepal, the only way to do this was to take a picture in KTM, send it digitally to a friend in Massachusetts who would have to print it at a store, then take it to the congressman’s office for additional paperwork, then FedEx it overnight to Missouri. With the time difference between Nepal and the US and the document mailing time, the whole process took about two or three days.

P: what??
i did not wear glasses in any photo?

me: you definitely have glasses on

11:07 AM P: i never sent a picture with glasses on
are you sure?

[I double checked my email, and the digital passport photo P took in KTM and we sent to our friend, was indeed, without his glasses.]

me: you’re right
it isn’t the later picture

P: i don’t have glasses on even in the first picture

me: but it is definitely you [in the photo]
I don’t know where they got this photo from then

11:08 AM P: how can they have a photo with glasses on?
does not make sense

me: did you take a photo for your biometrics [part of green card application–Round One] with glasses on?
I don’t know how it happened
but it’s here
so I’m not asking questions
I’m putting it in a DHL envelope and sending it now

[meanwhile I scanned him a copy of the document]

11:09 AM P: yah
jeezus
don’t know how they go these pictures

me: did you have glasses on for biometrics?

P: maybe

11:10 AM me: so they probably got it from the system
when they screwed up the last time
I think they must have done an emergency reprint when the congressman’s office called super angry

P: think so

me: so sending the package through DHL the fastest method
you can track the package
once I have the tracking number I’ll give to you
11:11 AM alright

P: do they give us a time?
DHL?

me: when we send documents to our students in China
it usually takes 4 days
so if it goes today
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
that’s 6 days
it should be enough

P: ok

When my boss got back from his student recruitment trip in Turkey and Greece he wanted to hear all about P’s document saga. Probably the most embarrassing and maddening part of this whole plot is that I work in the immigration field. I might not work with Green Card Applications and Advanced Parole Documents on a daily basis, but I’m at least used to the lingo, and the agencies, and I know the people to call, and who not to call (or at least the number I shouldn’t have called in Round Two). I know I submitted all my paperwork correctly, and other than the request for expediting, which is not totally unusual either, I know I followed all the correct protocol and procedures. And still USCIS messed with me. I’m kind of in shock… and I mentioned this in a comment on one of the previous posts, but I realize just how scary the entire immigration process can be—as an American we kind of take the process for granted. I can’t imagine what it is like for people who don’t know the system, or the correct forms and terms, or who to turn to for help. Not to mention those who struggle with English. No wonder the system is so messed up! I’ve certainly been humbled!

I received an email from the immigration attorney who was offering advice during this process. On November 15 USCIS is having a teleconference discussion on issuing I-765 and I-131 (work and travel) documents. He encouraged me to participate in the teleconference and explain my story. My boss was saying that, in the very least, I should write a complaint to the USCIS ombudsmen or to AILA (American Immigration Lawyer Association).

Meanwhile I have people telling me to keep my mouth shut so that P and I don’t get in trouble and P doesn’t get stuck without paperwork as retaliation or punishment. The US system isn’t supposed to work that way, but when the system fails you, you feel so powerless. My mother even called me after I posted a frustrated facebook message after the mailing mishap, “USCIS messed up again! I’m so angry I could literally shoot someone!” and said, “Take that down! You want to get in trouble?” While my grandmother said, “I know you came back from Nepal with most of the luggage, but make sure P has at least one suitcase, if he travels that far without baggage he will look so suspicious!”

A final comment about the photo—my boss said that once an applicant takes their biometrics photo, there is always a digital passport photo in the immigration system. When USCIS insisted that the only way to fix the problem was by sending a new hardcopy photo, the USCIS officer was wrong. I’d like to think that maybe he was mistaken or misinformed, but it could be that they were buying time, or stalling, or just being malicious. I don’t know. Unfortunately the congressional liaison didn’t realize this. So—if any of you are ever in a similar situation… don’t send them an overnight delivery hardcopy passport photo. Send the required photos with your application, but anything else beyond biometrics is unnecessary! The digital photos are in the system!

So anyway, this is where the story hopefully concludes (for now). I didn’t want to say anything until P received the document in the mail [happened on Monday KTM time] and was ready to depart, least the bad-luck-juju that has been following me acted up again. He should be here Thursday night baring any crazy issues at Boston Logan Airport.

Our Green Card interview is on October 31st at the same USCIS Lawrence Field Office I drove to in Round Four. Wish us luck!

American Immigration, or Why We Aren’t Getting Married in Nepal

And while on tangents, here is a second one…

I’ve had the question on the blog before: Are you getting married in Nepal? And yesterday’s post should make it clear that we are not. But there is a reason for that too.

So as I’ve mentioned in the past, my day job (when I’m not secretly blogging during my lunch break or lulls in student appointments) is an international student advisor at a university in New England. I really love my job. I love working with and talking to people from around the world on a daily basis, I love helping them when they have problems or questions, and it is a lot of fun to be constantly learning new things about culture. It’s not so fun working with immigration regulations… although having a good knowledge of these tricky regs helps me to better serve my students when they come with questions. But… that means I really know what I should do immigration wise, and what I shouldn’t do, and that if I break the rules, I don’t have “ignorance is bliss” to fall back on if we are caught, and professionally I can’t affording getting in trouble with this topic.

I’ve read on some blog forums about people going to India and getting married, then coming back in to the US, and getting married at a later date. Occasionally these couples are graduate students. P is also a graduate student on an F-1 visa. Going to South Asia on an F-1, marrying an American spouse, then coming back in through US immigration and not declaring the change of status, and then later changing it once getting married in the US is technically an immigration violation.

An F-1 student visa is “non-immigrant intent” meaning IF your intension to immigrate to the US changes (such as marrying an American and planning to stay here—unless you make it crystal clear that you both don’t intend to stay, but will return to South Asia and not apply for permanent residency) and you leave the country and re-enter, you have violated your F-1 status. (Similarly the most common visa rejection reason is Section 214(b) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act– that you do not have enough ties to your home country, or that you have not overcome a presumption that you are using the visa to immigrate or work illegally in the United States.)

Violation of F-1 status is an offense that could potentially have your SEVIS record at your university terminated and have you sent back to your home country. If you are taking this regulation exactly by the book with a strict interpretation—even being engaged and traveling internationally and coming back in could be a violation of your status. Certainly the last thing you should do is waive an engagement or wedding ring in an immigration official’s face at the port of entry (even though you will be in two separate immigration lines anyway—the American national in the US passport/green card line, the foreign spouse in the non-US passport line).

The other potential problem is coming back into the US and marrying here and initiating the paperwork for a Change of Status from F-1 to Permanent Residency (Green Card). If the time is short (between your foreign spouse’s entry and the US wedding/paperwork) the US gov’t can potentially give you trouble when processing your Change of Status info because they can question your spouses, “intention to immigrate” when they last entered the country close to your wedding date. Do they always give trouble, probably not, but the potential is there.

If a foreign national plans to marry an American then technically (if we are going “by the book” here) they should come into the US on a K-1 (fiancé) visa. However then your partner could potentially be stuck outside the country for months waiting for the paperwork to clear before they could enter and marry. It is a perpetual frustration… US immigration rules make things so challenging, that it encourages people to break the rules.

On the flip side… you get married in the US first, then plan to go to Nepal… after you marry here you would have to initiate that same Change of Status paperwork and at least get “Advanced Parole” (travel papers) before you leave the US. That could be one month to several months (or more depending on the country, spouse name, etc) to receive that paperwork. So either way, you can’t do a wedding in the US and abroad within a few days of each other legally.

From what I hear, in the past you could get married at a court house and walk across the street to a US gov’t immigration center and get your Green Card the same day. But long gone are those days.

Anyway, besides the silly desire to want anniversary dates close to one another for memory and consistency purposes, my main worry was that if we did the wedding in the US first, and too much time passed before we were able to make it to Nepal, then people might feel… well… the wedding is over now, so much time has passed, let’s just leave the Nepali part. We can have a party to introduce you to relatives, but no point in doing the rituals.

I didn’t want the Nepali ceremony to go by the way-side because immigration and timing just couldn’t add up. Plus I was certain that few, if any, of my relatives would come to Nepal. My sisters, probably, but my parents, particularly my dad, definitely not. I thought it would be good to expose them to P’s culture while I had the chance.

So… this is why both weddings are in the US. P and I hope to travel to Nepal before the end of 2011—either during Dashain or December depending on immigration paperwork and time off from work, and perhaps we will have a gathering of family in Nepal as a wedding party, but at least the main events will have been taken care of by then, and no immigration rules would have been flagrantly broken in the making of our marriage.

Alright, I’ll take a break from wedding posts for a little while to give you all a breather :)

Int’l Students and Customs and Border Protection

Sorry—it seems like the past few days have been “share what C is reading” time on the blog, but I can’t help myself.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article on Customs and Border Protection (CBP) called Far From Border, U.S. Detains Foreign Students. Out of frustration, and as an international  student advisor, I wanted to share it (since the Chronicle is only available for a short time to viewers without a subscription to the site I’m going to copy and paste the text below. No copyright violations intended.)

I also wanted to post it because it discussed one CBP “hotspot” as being upstate New York, my home area, and several of the cases where students and professors have been harassed are around Postam, NY, which is just down the road from my alma mater. I remember seeing several CBP roadblocks set up on “Route 11” (the only “highway” on the western edge of northern New York State) when driving up to my university and back. As an American, I never had a problem, and I think the time or two I might have been stopped with P we had his paperwork. In particular I remember a dark skinned Indian professor from the Global Studies department at my school being bothered by the CBP on several occasions, once he was even carted off to a holding cell while the university scrambled to produce his paperwork.

I find this treatment of internationals despicable. I understand the need to “secure the borders” however harassing students and professors in this way is not the solution. As a lawyer cited in the article states, “It seems an insane policy to be arresting scientists, artists, professors, and students who have done everything properly and do a great job for our country.”

As a precaution I tell my students to keep photocopies of their I-94 card and passport photo ID folded up in their wallet. Although it isn’t the original documentation, it is some sort of proof of the original documentation, and might help if they are ever stopped—or at least it is better than nothing. According to the article:

Customs and Border Protection also maintains that it can set up roadblocks—it prefers the term “temporary permanent checkpoints” for legal reasons—and question people on trains and buses or at transportation stations anywhere within 100 air miles of a U.S. border or seacoast. This broadly defined border zone encompasses most of the nation’s major cities and the entirety of several states, including Florida, Michigan, Hawaii, Delaware, New Jersey, and five of the six New England states. The American Civil Liberties Union—concerned about the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against arbitrary searches and seizures—has called it the “Constitution-Free Zone.”

Our Irish friend was traveling with his visiting parents up in New Hampshire over the summer and was stopped at one of CBP’s “roadblocks.” He didn’t have his passport, I-94 card, or I-20 documents on him, and the officer threatened to fine him $500! Luckily he was able to talk his way out of it… had he been of a non-European origin, he might not have fared so well. Ironically—later in the fall he was carrying his passport on him, and it was destroyed accidently by water— he had to apply for a new Irish passport, and go through the visa process again while home in Dublin for Christmas. He nearly missed his return flight due to consulate scheduling conflicts. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

I think my favorite example of CBP ridiculousness in the article was this:

A Potsdam student was briefly detained last summer while doing turtle research with her professor in a local swamp. “Border Patrol was there asking for documents,” Ms. Parker-Goeke says. “She’s in a swamp—she doesn’t have her documents.” The professor was able to persuade the agents to call the university to clear up the student’s status.

Sigh, anyway… As many of you, your partners, or your partner’s family, etc, might be international students in the US, I figured I’d share the article:

Far From Canada, U.S. Detains Foreign Students by Colin Woodward
(originally posted January 9, in the online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education).

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers check passengers' citizenship on a bus in Rochester, N.Y., more than 75 miles from Canada. Some college officials whose students have been stopped believe the customs agency has more resources than it knows what to do with.

Six miles north of the University of Maine’s flagship campus, on the only real highway in these parts, students and professors traveling south might encounter a surprise: a roadblock manned by armed Border Patrol agents, backed by drug-sniffing dogs, state policemen, and county sheriff’s deputies.

Although the Canadian border is nearly 100 miles behind them—and Bangor, Maine’s second-largest city, just 15 miles ahead—motorists are queried about their citizenship and immigration status. Those who raise an agent’s suspicions are sent to an adjacent weigh station for further questioning and, sometimes, searches. Any foreign students or scholars unable to produce all of their original documentation are detained and could be arrested.

Thus far, nobody from the University of Maine has actually been arrested at this ephemeral checkpoint, which usually appears near the start of the academic year, when migrant laborers happen to be leaving eastern Maine’s blueberry fields. One student had to wait at the roadblock until university authorities had satisfied agents that the individual was in the country legally, university officials say.

But elsewhere on the northern border, foreign students and scholars experience fear and uncertainty every time they leave campus, pick up a friend at the bus station, or board a domestic train or flight, even when they have all their documents with them.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has greatly increased its manpower along the northern border, allowing for more-frequent use of roving patrols or surprise checkpoints on buses, trains, and highways far from the border itself. Students who failed to carry their original documents have been delayed and fined, apprehended even when they’re just a few miles from campus.

“We used to tell students: When you get here, put your passport and I-90 form away so you don’t lose it, because you don’t need anything special when you travel around the country,” says Thy Yang, director of international programs at Michigan Technological University, located a few miles from the shores of Lake Superior. “Now we tell them to carry it at all times.”

She adds, “Some students have gotten citations and a $75 fine for not carrying their documents, and they weren’t happy about it. We told them it could have been worse.”

For a broad category of students and scholars, even having one’s documents in hand and in order offers no guarantee against being arrested and locked up in a detention facility hundreds of miles away. University officials and immigration attorneys interviewed by The Chronicle told of nearly two dozen incidents in which students or scholars were inappropriately detained at domestic stops by customs officers. Most were in the midst of the lengthy but not uncommon process of changing their immigration status and had followed all the rules. Others were apparently detained because the agents were unaware that while a student’s visa might have expired, his or her permission to study in the country had not. All were in the country legally under the rules set forth by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which, like Customs and Border Protection, is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“Border Patrol sometimes interprets immigration regulations differently than Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services do,” says Ellen A. Dussourd, director of international student and scholar services at the University at Buffalo. “This causes a lot of difficulty for international student and scholar offices when they need to advise their international students and scholars about travel in the U.S.”

Frank A. Novak, an immigration lawyer at Harter Secrest & Emery, a law firm in Rochester, N.Y., says students and scholars typically run afoul of the customs agency when changing status from a nonimmigrant student or work visa (such as F-1, H1B, or O-1) to an immigrant one, perhaps because they have married a U.S. national or been offered a permanent job. They apply before their visa expires and receive permission to work, live, and travel until their application is processed, which may take years. “Inherent in the policy is that your old [nonimmigrant] status will expire,” he says, but customs officers sees this as grounds to arrest them.

“These people are following all the rules, but the government-enforcement authorities are detaining them and really wreaking havoc on their lives and scaring the heck out of them,” says Mr. Novak, whose clients have included foreign scholars so treated. “It seems an insane policy to be arresting scientists, artists, professors, and students who have done everything properly and do a great job for our country.”

‘Temporary Permanent’

Customs and Border Protection officials did not make themselves available for an interview, despite repeated requests. A written statement ignored questions on the topic, instead providing general commentary on the purpose of internal checkpoints. “CBP Border Patrol agents conduct these types of operations periodically in key locations that serve as conduits for human and narcotics smuggling,” the statement said. “These operations serve as a vital component to our overall border security efforts and help sustain security efforts implemented in recent years.”

Customs and Border Protection also maintains that it can set up roadblocks—it prefers the term “temporary permanent checkpoints” for legal reasons—and question people on trains and buses or at transportation stations anywhere within 100 air miles of a U.S. border or seacoast. This broadly defined border zone encompasses most of the nation’s major cities and the entirety of several states, including Florida, Michigan, Hawaii, Delaware, New Jersey, and five of the six New England states. The American Civil Liberties Union—concerned about the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against arbitrary searches and seizures—has called it the “Constitution-Free Zone.”

Officials of several universities located within 100 miles of the Canadian frontier told The Chronicle that their foreign students and faculty have experienced few serious problems as a result of the checkpoints, though they now tell students to carry their original documents with them at all times. The institutions include the University of Maine at Orono, University of Vermont, Wayne State University, Michigan Tech, and Western Washington University.

“You’ll always have a quirk here and there or an error now and then, but for the most part, things are working pretty well at the border, and we don’t have any troubles away from the border at all,” says Linda Seatts, director of Wayne State’s Office of International Students and Scholars. “We’re just elated about that.”

In upstate New York, it’s a different story. For reasons that remain unclear, Customs and Border Protection has had an aggressive presence away from the immediate border, especially around the northern city of Potsdam or in central New York cities like Rochester and Syracuse, which are relatively far from the nearest border crossings. Area residents say Border Patrol officers maintain a near-constant presence at Rochester’s bus station and frequently question passengers at the airport. They regularly board domestic Amtrak trains passing through the area en route from Chicago to New York, where they shine flashlights in sleeping passengers’ faces.

“We’ve had hundreds of students questioned and stopped and inconvenienced, and perhaps a dozen students, scholars, or family members who’ve been detained or jailed,” says Cary M. Jensen, director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester. “For international visitors who see people boarding trains, pulling people off, asking for documents, it feels a lot like East Germany did when I visited in 1980.”

Foreign students and scholars are often reticent to speak with reporters, but college officials and immigration attorneys in the region described several hair-raising examples of what they regard as inappropriate and worrisome detentions of members of their community in the past four years. These include:

  • A Pakistani undergraduate at the University of Rochester was pulled off a Trailways bus to Albany in 2007, who thought carrying his student photo ID was sufficient for a short domestic trip. Mr. Jensen says the student was held for two weeks at a detention facility before he and his family could appear before a judge and prove they were in the country legally, with an asylum application pending.
  • A Chinese student at the State University of New York at Potsdam’s Crane School of Music was seized on a domestic Adirondack Trailways bus for lack of original immigration documents. He was released after a few hours, but a few days later agents came to campus, arrested him, and locked him up for three weeks at a detention facility several hours away, where inmates nicknamed him Smart Boy. Although the student’s change-of-status paperwork was in order—and was approved while he was in detention—he missed the start of classes and had to leave the institution. “He was very scared, and by the end of it, his whole demeanor had changed,” says Potsdam’s international-programs coordinator, Bethany A. Parker-Goeke. “He ended up leaving the country. His parents wouldn’t let him go back to the U.S.”
  • A University of Rochester doctoral student bound for a conference at Cornell University was taken from a bus and detained for hours at a police station even though he had all his documentation and was in legal status. Mr. Jensen says the Border Patrol agent didn’t understand the student’s paperwork, although it was typical for someone who had changed from a two-year master’s degree to a seven-year doctoral program. “We helped clear it up, but he missed the conference,” Mr. Jensen recalls.
  • A scholar at an undisclosed institution in Rochester was arrested at the airport while on his way to visit his wife, a student at an institution out of state. Both had H1B visas, had applied for permanent residence status, and had permission from Citizenship and Immigration Services to live, work, and travel while their applications were adjudicated, according to their attorney, Mr. Novak. But Customs and Border Protection officers “treated him like a criminal and threw him in the clink. The wife didn’t dare come to pay the bond to get him out because they would throw her in jail, too.”
  • A Potsdam student was briefly detained last summer while doing turtle research with her professor in a local swamp. “Border Patrol was there asking for documents,” Ms. Parker-Goeke says. “She’s in a swamp—she doesn’t have her documents.” The professor was able to persuade the agents to call the university to clear up the student’s status.

“I have concerns for people who are legally here and making a great contribution but could get stuck in the system,” says Brendan P. O’Brien, director of the International Students and Scholars Office at Cornell University. Recently a foreign visiting-faculty member at the university missed a conference in Chicago because customs agents didn’t understand his change-of-status papers. “What’s happening is more than just a minor inconvenience.”

Too Many Resources?

It’s unclear why the situation in upstate New York is more serious than in other parts of the country, including areas with high border traffic volumes, like Detroit and northeastern Washington State. Some university officials and immigration lawyers suspect that Customs and Border Protection’s Rochester station has been given more resources than it knows what to do with, reportedly expanding from seven to 27 agents since May 2008. There are no ports of entry in its jurisdiction, which lacks a land boundary with Canada.

“Basically they have nothing to do, so they’ve come up with a really easy way to arrest a lot of people through internal enforcement,” says Nancy Morawetz, of the New York University School of Law, who has represented individuals caught up in the sweeps and procured arrest information from Customs and Border Protection via the Freedom of Information Act. The records have shown that less than 1 percent of those arrested on buses and trains in the Rochester area had entered the country within the past three days, and that none of them could be shown to have entered from Canada, she says. “I think that data is incredibly powerful,” Ms. Morawetz says, “because it shows that all this aggravation and hardship has essentially nothing to do with the Border Patrol mission” of securing the border.

“In a country where 5 percent of the population lacks status, it’s not hard to pick up bodies by going into any crowded station and asking people where they were born,” she says. “This isn’t about securing our borders. It’s about making life as uncomfortable as possible for those out of status and not caring how it makes foreign students or professionals feel.”

Customs and Border Protection headquarters did not make anyone available to discuss the programmatic purpose of the sweeps and checkpoints, and its written statement said only that it “performed in direct support of immediate border-enforcement efforts and as a means of preventing smuggling organizations from exploiting existing transportation hubs to travel to the interior of the United States.” An official who could speak for the situation in upstate New York did not keep a scheduled telephone interview.

The operations officer at the Swanton, Vt., sector office, Mark Henry, said it didn’t set up highway checkpoints to use excessive manpower. “We set them up based on intelligence,” he said. “Naturally our first concern is with terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, but we’re an all-threats agency, so it can be related to narcotics trafficking and all kinds of law enforcement.”

Some near-border institutions refused to discuss the effects of highway stops and roving patrols on their foreign students. The Swanton office of Customs and Border Protection occasionally sets up roadblocks on Interstate 91 in White River Junction, Vt., a few miles from Dartmouth College’s campus, but a spokesperson for the college, Sarah A. Memmi, said it would not “contribute to your story.” Similarly, officials at the international office of the University of North Dakota said the institution did not wish to comment on the situation in its region.

“Ever since 9/11, nobody wants to be painted as being indifferent to the terrorist threat, so schools advise people to avoid saying anything that might paint the institution as undermining counterterrorism enforcement,” said Victor Johnson, senior public-policy adviser at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “That’s part of the reason we don’t hear that much about it.”

Fortunately, institutions report that foreign enrollments haven’t been affected, with several seeing substantial increases in recent years. The Rochester Institute of Technology, for instance, has seen 50-percent growth in its foreign enrollment since 2005, according to its director of international student services, Jeffrey W. Cox. “We’ve been active in preparing them for whatever they might encounter,” he said. Its advice: “When you leave the suburb of Henrietta,” where RIT is located, “always have your documents with you.”