Big Data, Bad Data: Resolving the Tyranny of the Database
This term, the Supreme Court is considering a case that implicates the doctrine of “consular non-reviewability”–the legal principle that generally, courts in the United States will not review the discretionary decisions of American consular officers if they deny visa applications overseas. The doctrine has a long history in Supreme Court jurisprudence, and is based on both constitutional and practical concerns. As a matter of constitutional law, consular decisions may be tied up with foreign policy concerns that the Courts generally leave to the Executive Branch; as a matter of practical concern, both the volume of visa applications and the difficulties of getting records of decisions from far-flung consular posts make meaningful judicial review impracticable.
One of the briefs by amici in the case comes from a group of former consular officers, and attacks both the legal and practical justifications for the doctrine in a new way. They highlight a reality facing any American company or citizen seeking to sponsor a foreign national from abroad. The former consular officers detail the “veto power” that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has over any consular decision to grant a visa, and how that power is exercised not through individual discretionary decisions, but through entry of information into a complex of databases overseen by DHS.
The consular officers describe, in chilling detail, how one physician from Malaysia was denied renewal of her temporary work visa because an FBI officer checked the wrong box on a form used to enter data into one of the databases that feeds into the DHS system. The error was only discovered after extensive litigation, in which the government fought any attempt to disclose the basis for its decision.
The problems caused by unknown (and, as a practical matter, undiscoverable) databases used by the immigration authorities are not just limited to foreign nationals when they apply for visas, however. Business immigration practitioners will all be able to tell stories of having petitions filed by established companies and other institutions questioned because of bad information in the commercial database used by USCIS to verify information in business-related petitions. My own favorite experience was a Request for Evidence seeking proof that an internationally-renowned research institution continued to exist, because the database did not have any recent information of their commercial activities in it – when a quick search of the Internet would have turned up news stories about one of the institution’s faculty having won the Nobel Prize the month before.
The tyranny of “what’s in the computer” extends through most immigration-related processes, and can be difficult to remedy. Recently in our office, we encountered a situation in which the Department of State rejected an immigrant visa applicant, telling him that he had committed fraud in a prior visa application. We were able to determine that a former employer of the visa applicant had filed a petition for our client, and the consulate had returned it to the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether the employer had committed fraud. DHS, in turn, had entered in the computer that the consulate had found fraud, without doing any determination about the petition. We now have a situation where the State Department says it can’t do anything to change the decision, because DHS made it; DHS, in turn, says it cannot do anything to change the decision because the State Department made the determination.
For individuals caught in such dilemmas, litigation against the government is often the only hope, and offers no guarantee of success. The government normally fights such suits by arguing the court has no jurisdiction, rather than trying to argue that the decision was supported by sufficient evidence. Even for U.S. citizens caught in the web of databases, litigation to remove one’s name from watch lists can be an expensive and risky proposition.
If the U.S. Government is going to rely on these databases to make decisions affecting US businesses and family members, they need to create a more robust process through which errors in these databases can be brought to light and corrected. As the consular officers note in their brief, too often bureaucratic inertia and workload constraints prevent consular officers or others in the immigration system from being able to get to the bottom of a “flag” on an applicant’s record. A more robust Privacy Officer position within DHS, with sufficient staff and resources to be able to respond to public inquiries and help resolve database errors, would go a long way to ensure that visa decisions are made on the basis of high quality information, and that American families and businesses have a mechanism to redress database problems that affect their lives and livelihoods.
By William Stock, AILA First Vice President