Hackery, Math & Design

Steven Wittens i

Know your Bluecheck

Know your Bluecheck

Immigration from the Inside


I still remember when I understood how immigration approvals actually work. I was in Vancouver airport, at the immigration office, a no-man's land, applying for a temporary Canadian work permit. For a software engineer like me there was a specific category to fast track approvals, with a few criteria. This meant I could gather the necessary paperwork and references, and "just" hop on a plane, applying on entry instead of through an embassy first. Hence what usually takes place behind the walls of administration was handled immediately and face-to-face; or at least, immediately after the obligatory 1-2 hours of waiting in line.

A funny moment was when the officer asked me which languages I knew, and I told him I spoke Dutch, French and English. Speaking both Canadian languages was a big plus. "No." he said, looking back at his monitor. "Uh... Computer languages." Ah. It was time to speak the magic incantation: "PHP, MySQL, Java." I knew exactly which table this man was looking at, of which a valid applicant needed to know 3. But the words in it were gobbledygook to him, and had I said my experience as a web developer had made me an excellent Fortran or COBOL programmer, he would've taken my word for it.

You might think the lesson is "immigration has to judge people on things they have no ability to evaluate," and that's true, but that's baby's first disenchantment. Most of this interaction took place at a big long counter in an open waiting room, so you got to listen in on everyone ahead of you. I went through this gauntlet multiple times over the years. You see a lot.

Immigrants or visitors with a poor grasp of the language often struggled. Some arrived entirely unprepared, family in tow. Some were left to sit for hours in a corner upon rejection, or just waiting for an interpreter. Derpy Australian snowboard instructors were also a frequent sight, fast tracked as Anglos unless they messed something up. For the most part though, people who were there were pretty sure to be approved, they just had to show their work.

One time an officer did in fact excuse himself to call up my new employer and confirm a few things, which we'd pre-arranged just in case. Eventually they started noticing in their system I was a repeat customer and eased up. I was also a western, educated person, who by then had gone native. The officer isn't just checking a list, they are trying to determine if what you are presenting is a coherent picture with multiple independent pieces of evidence that add up. Forging a degree, a job reference or a background story is not hard, the hard part is playing the part, which would require conning someone whose job it is to spot liars.

Their job is not to verify the information, rather their job is to compare the information and see if if it all matches. They're not just reading the paper, they're reading the person too. If you're nervous and fidgeting, expect to be there for a while as they tease everything apart. If you're confident, you'll blaze through. e.g. Losing my accent took work, you can't fake that, and that said more about my ability to be an integrated resident than a stack of papers ever could.

The entry criteria of degree, skill and means aren't actually evaluated. Only proxies, like a piece of paper that claims you received a degree from University X, or a person they can call who claims to be an employer at a company that exists and who believes in your value. If you can fake those convincingly enough, they'd never know.

The purpose of the gauntlet is mostly the gauntlet itself: it's a process that makes people jump through hoops. Ostensibly this is meant to catch the unqualified, but the thing is, nobody honest is going to try to apply to something they know they don't qualify for. Especially not when it comes to immigration, whose admission rules are signposted, and which requires a significant investment of time and resources. So what they're really looking for is people who are so underinformed they think they are qualified (Dunning-Krugers), or people who pretend to be qualified but are not (Liars).

This isn't even unique to immigration by the way: how many employers have actually called up their employees' colleges to verify they graduated, or even just asked them for a diploma or transcript? They'll call up a reference or two, for sure, but how deep do they really want to go? They'll only do that if the new hire turns out to be incompetent. Or, as in one company I worked at, you suspect someone has a gambling problem, and that their company laptop which was "stolen" was actually pawned off to pay debts. But I digress.

Types of candidates

Think of college admissions, political parties, or just dating. We're all trying to figure out if people are qualified or suitable, but all we can see is whether they can convincingly play the part. Whether the person is qualified is mostly irrelevant, and only comes into play if it makes them act visibly insecure and nervous. Only the bad liars get caught this way. The good liars must be revealed over time, as the difference between competence and confidence becomes apparent.

An important difference is between earning respect and demanding respect. Someone who is competent can earn respect through their work, and gain status among their peers as a result. Someone who is not competent, but confident, can project status or maneuver their way into it, and use that to demand respect. That is, honest people tend to derive status from respect, dishonest people tend to derive respect from status.

Badges, degrees and certificates have been around forever, so this is a pretty old dynamic of tension. Are they called a senior engineer because juniors come to them with questions, or do they want underlings so they'll be seen as senior? Is their degree a sign of genuine talent and interest, or a sign of someone who expertly used group exercises and copied notes to get that paper at all costs? Does that certificate of compliance represent verified principles, or the authority of someone bribed to look the other way?

This is also why this post is titled "Know your Bluecheck." These little blue checkmarks of Twitter and other similar platforms were originally intended as mere verifications of identity, to avoid impersonation. But the people who have one are usually notable in one way or another, so the association between status and the badge was inevitable. The effect is that having a bluecheck confers status rather than just communicating the pre-existence of it. Any time someone publishes a ruleset, those rules can be gamed, and we've gamified status. So now the causal arrow goes predominantly from status to respect, instead of from respect to status.

I don't mean to swerve into "who bluechecks the bluechecks," no, I just wanted to highlight this point because there is also an enormous gap between how the media talks about immigration and how it feels to go through immigration. Very few bluechecks seem to get it these days, and they're the ones supposed to be good at explaining it. There is something nobody talks about and which is nevertheless universal for fellow immigrants I've spoken to.

Anyone who lives on any kind of temporary visa has an expiration date on their life as they know it. Their house, their job, their social circle, their local assets, all are tied to a piece of paper that's valid for only a few years at most. It's like a permanent Sword of Damocles hanging over your head, only it's worse, because this sword is always slowly descending. The only way to crank it back up is to run another gauntlet, to file more things, to accept not being able to travel if they take too long, and risk rejection if the political climate veers particularly conservative for a few years, or some email gets routed to the wrong inbox.

Employers don't understand this either. To the person assigned to help support your case from their end, you're just another item on their to do list, one they'd much rather procrastinate on. Because they don't realize failure means nuking a person's entire life over an avoidable screw up.

Converting this into permanent residency is often hard, and can take years even after having lived there for several, during which you're bound even more tightly to your job. Until you have it, you don't actually get to experience what it's truly like to live in a place. To feel free to put down roots, form long lasting bonds, pursue opportunities, and just accumulate life. To finally be sure you're never gonna have to pack it all up again unless you want to. It puts a damper on any long term plans and your willingness to invest yourself. The little indignities of having to deal with an at-times ridiculous bureaucracy are nothing compared to that sense of perma-dread, or the relief you feel when it's finally gone.

I can't say my foibles with immigration have been particularly tough, I had it easy all things considered, but I do know what it's like to become illegal and be told you have to leave through no fault of your own. Illegal immigrants who have no prospects of ever legitimizing, or ever returning, and who cannot enter the job market, have it far worse. They have to give up on a peace of mind so basic, most citizens don't even realize they have it, and cannot truly empathize with those who lack it.

The framing of either opening borders indiscriminately, or tightening the border checks misses the point. You don't want people who are unqualified, and you don't want frauds, but you can't evaluate qualifications or spot good liars at the border anyway. They pretend they can, but anyone with the means can and does work around them. Meanwhile, the dehumanizing aspects of having to justify your worth over and over to someone who doesn't have the first clue about you or what you do remains. As do the seedy alternatives people pursue in desperation.

I can also tell you a story. About a contractor who's auditing a struggling startup and learns that the product they failed to build was mostly a pretense for the multi-millionaire founder to become a "legitimate businessman" again. Because he wanted to overturn a travel ban due to multiple sexual assault convictions. Who then pulled the plug to cut his losses, and didn't pay his last invoices, cos he already spent over $1m on this.

Visas and passports are some of the most desirable documents of our day. Some people get them because they deserve them, others because they want them. The system can't really tell them apart, it only serves as a bottleneck, to limit the flow and eliminate the obvious mistakes, by inflicting mild to severe inconvenience and indignity on everyone who tries.

Suppose something goes wrong with your immigration paperwork, out of your own control, e.g. because the person responsible let something sit for a few weeks past some crucial deadlines. As a result, you, an entirely qualified person, cannot re-apply without raising some red flags of issuing dates that don't match up, risking rejection. In that case, hypothetically, you may discover that a certain kind of immigration lawyer will tell you you need to be one of the good liars, just for a while. To run the in-person gauntlet in that mode, so that it is resolved with the least amount of conflict for all parties involved. You may also discover their reasoning is sound, and all alternatives worse.

That might be a moment at which you truly understand how immigration works.

After you go through with it I mean, and emerge unscathed and paper in hand, having worked on your mime and diction. Hypothetically.

Dignity  Featured  Immigration  Passports
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