"[A] riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" ~ Winston Churchill
The most quotable of British Prime Ministers could well have been talking about the American immigration system rather than describing Russia in 1939. U.S. immigration law is like stratified rock, revealing layer on layer of Congressional accretions laid down over many years, with the superstructure upended in tectonic shifts triggered by the baffling and contradictory interpretations of multiple agencies and courts. Not surprisingly, Thomas Stanley in The Millionaire Next Door recommended immigration law as a career, predicting that many foreign citizens, whether affluent or less so, would find America an attractive destination and need a chaperone to guide them through the maze of red tape.
If Congress ever grows enough of a spine to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, it must do more than merely resolve the big items -- border and interior enforcement; legalization of unauthorized migrants already here; and a plan for future flows of sojourners and permanent residents. It must also strive to simplify the law.
Consider what should be a straightforward concept -- following the rules. How does a noncitizen comply with the immigration laws? What does it take to maintain legal immigration status? Sadly, the answer is as clear as fracking fluid runoff.
For example, without any malevolent intent or affirmative act of misconduct, a temporary entrant (a "nonimmigrant") through the action of a third party, say a parent or spouse, a spouse's employer, a university official, or a lawyer, can "fail to maintain nonimmigrant status," be in a condition known as "unlawful presence" and "not [be] in a lawful nonimmigrant status" -- three phrases in law or regulation that often don't mean the same thing. Thus, a hapless individual may be seen by the authorities as having violated legal status but not be unlawfully present. This could occur, as one example among many, where the person is the spouse of a J-1 exchange visitor who is working under a form of employment permission known as curricular practical training, and the J-1 worker is fired. (This outcome would arise because unlawful presence only occurs if one overstays the period of status authorized, and an exchange visitor, like an academic or vocational student, is admitted for "duration of status," a condition that carries no date-certain expiration. Go figure.)
Or, a foreign citizen can depart the U.S. holding a government certificate allowing permission to return (known as "advance parole") and then reenter in order to await the grant of a green card under the adjustment of status process. Such a person would not have maintained nonimmigrant status -- indeed would not have any legal status (because parole is not a status) -- and yet would not have violated the immigration law. In essence, he or she would be in a non-status as an applicant under color of law awaiting the grant of a pending benefit.
Or, consider a foreign person with a U.S. work permit. As I've noted in an earlier post about human levitation, you may have the right to work here but not to be here.
Or, you might have successfully changed or extended your work-visa status for one, two or three years and received from the immigration authorities an official approval notice with a clip-out status permit (the Form I-94) bearing a validity period, leave the country for a trip to see Grandma, and be readmitted with a new I-94 for a significantly shorter period. This occurs because one component of the Homeland Security Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), limits the I-94 to the expiration date of one's passport, while another DHS component, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), ignores the validity period of the passport, and holds that as a condition of maintaining nonimmigrant status you must always make sure your passport is unexpired.
Often, the CBP inspector at the port of entry says nothing about having short-changed the expiration date on the I-94; hence, the entrant may not realize his/her status document has been unduly shortened. The too-frequent result: An unwitting overstay occurs, thereby triggering unlawful presence. And even if the shortening of the status period is noted, the individual could reasonably believe that the longer of the two I-94s (in this case, the clip-out version) prevails over the shorter expiration period. Or s/he may be misled by the DMV who issues a driver's license with a validity period extending to the end date on the clip-out I-94.
Whether or not the person is confused or misled, a USCIS adjudicator, a consular official abroad, a CBP inspector, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer or an immigration judge, when examining the person's immigration compliance history on some future date, may well deny an immigration benefit, refuse a visa, prevent entry or order removal -- all because of confusion over the simple concept of maintaining legal immigration status.
If that's not complicated enough, the legacy agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, repeatedly floated a notion (not a published regulation) known misleadingly as the "last action rule" in order to reconcile discrepancies in ending dates on two or more I-94 status documents. The "rule" sounds simple enough: Whichever status was the last one granted ("the last action") controls the person's nonimmigrant status. Except, however, where the last action granted was based on a change rather than an extension of status, then the last action rule is inapplicable. For the stew that is the last action rule, see these confusing links: Bednarz letter, Cook Memo (and referenced Simmons letter), Hernandez letter, and unapproved AILA/INS October 17, 2001 liaison meeting minutes (Item II).
Still worse, if the immigration laws make it virtually impossible to know who's in legal status, they make it harder than a Rubik's Cube to figure out who's here illegally, as DREAM activist Prerna Lal explains in "It's More Complicated than Legal vs. Illegal," her open letter to Ruben Navarette -- which challenges his defense of the slur, "illegal immigrant."
If my effort to explain the mumbo-jumbo of immigration violations and last actions remains confusing, I ask your pardon. Be heartened, however, that errors of these types can be fixed -- assuming that the immigration agency exercises its heart (which it occasionally does). Still, it's a shame USCIS doesn't heed its stakeholders by expanding the areas of forgivable infractions and Congress does not write intelligible immigration laws for law-abiding individuals to follow, a code unlike the current immigration statutes that "yield up meaning only grudgingly" to reveal "morsels of comprehension [which] must be pried from mollusks of jargon."