Lawyers assail immigration hot line's service

System blamed for arrest, deportation of some

February 29, 2004|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A customer service telephone system run by immigration authorities is frustrating and inefficient, and in some cases has provided such bad advice that clients have been detained or deported, according to immigration lawyers, who are pressing to have the service scrapped.

Last June, the Department of Homeland Security cut off telephone access to immigration offices around the United States, where most applications for citizenship or changes in immigration status are decided. Instead, the department's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services directed the public to use a toll-free National Customer Service Center telephone system to resolve immigration-related problems.

But lawyers charge that contractors without proper knowledge of immigration law staff the phones.

"It's the No. 1 source of aggravation among attorneys and the general public," said Jeffrey Goldman, a Boston-based immigration attorney, who has been bombarded with complaints from frustrated clients.

Telephone operators at the service center have been unable to provide meaningful assistance and in some cases have provided wrong information - leading to delays and rejections of applications, said legal specialists at the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"The system is utterly inadequate for problem resolution," said Bob Deasy, who leads a liaison group that links the immigration lawyers' group and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Officials at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services maintain that the new phone system is working "quite well" and that the agency's monthly customer service surveys show an average 80 percent satisfaction rate, said spokesman Russ Knocke.

"It's definitely intended to be more effective," said Knocke in a recent phone interview. "It empowers our customers to be able to speak with a knowledgeable customer service representative. Busy signals were common before."

In the past, customers could make inquiries at the specific immigration service center where their case was being processed. Now, all calls are channeled through a toll-free number that feeds into offices where critics say clerical-type personnel respond to queries from prepared scripts.

Information officers are on hand to field more complex questions. But issues that cannot immediately be tackled are referred to a specific service center, which has as long as 30 days to respond to the customer in writing.

Activists are demanding that complex cases be immediately transferred to officials who can resolve problems relating to the processing of cases.

A survey conducted last year by the lawyers' group was fraught with complaints from individuals who reportedly had received incorrect advice from certain telephone operators, such as where, when or how to file for a benefit, or whether to remain in the United States or leave under given circumstances.

In some cases, the group said, such mistakes led to loss of immigration status, arrest and deportation. Seventy-nine percent of the survey's respondents rated their experience with the telephone service as unsatisfactory, and 63 percent gave the system the least favorable evaluation, said Crystal Williams, senior director of liaison and information for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Many of the respondents were lawyers, who typically call the hot line on behalf of their clients. Participants were not required to give their names.

In one case, an unidentified customer inquired about renewing her expiring green card and was sent a form, which she completed, the lawyers group said. Failing to get a response, she called the hot line a few times and was told each time that everything was fine; the case was pending. It subsequently came to light that she was meant to file an additional form but had not, lawyers said. She received a notice of termination of her residence status.

But Knocke, the immigration official, insisted that phone operators had a wealth of information and resources at their disposal that allowed them to properly answer questions and guide callers.

Knocke said that his department welcomed feedback on the workings of the phone system. "One of our priorities is world-class customer service," he said. "We recognize it's not perfect and that it can be improved upon, and we are working to improve upon it."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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