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Another top Indian-American official bows out

February 23, 2008 19:52 IST

Yet another senior Indian-American Bush Administration official has returned to the private sector.

 

Prakash Khatri, who created history when he was appointed the first-ever Ombudsman of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security tendered his resignation, effective February 29.

 

In October, Karan Bhatia, resigned as deputy US trade representative to return to the private sector, followed by Dr Rajeev Venkayya, who left his position as special assistant to President George W Bush and senior director for bio-defense on the Homeland Security Council, to take up a position with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in announcing Khatri's departure, said, "As the nation's first USCIS Ombudsman, Prakash devoted his energy and talent to streamlining the process by which we provide important immigration services and benefits to individuals and employers ranging from citizenship, lawful permanent residency, employment authorization, adoptions, asylum and refugee status, and foreign student authorisation."

 

"Since his appointment in July 2003," Chertoff said, "the department has relied on Prakash's executive leadership and vision as he produced more than 70 formal recommendations and numerous informal recommendations to improve the nation's immigration benefits process."

 

He thanked Khatri "for his advice and sound analysis on numerous immigration reform initiatives and wish him well in the future".

 

Khatri said that his resignation was something "that has been pending for quite a while--I was supposed to resign in September but this job is so exciting and time-consuming that you kind of get completely immersed in it and I found myself serving five additional months."

 

"But I wanted to be out because I wanted to have time to look for another opportunity and I had committed to doing that," he added.

 

Khatri said that he was "proud of my service and I was honored to have been able to make a difference".

 

"I really feel like we've accomplished much more than I would have imagined in a lifetime in terms of identifying issues, making recommendations--so now it's for others to implement."

 

Khatri said he hoped to remain in Washington, DC but had not nailed down a job yet and acknoweledged that he would continue "to be in the immigration arena--in the consulting arena by and large and in the legal field as an immigration lawyer".

 

In an extensive farewell interview with rediff.com, he said that "my hope is that I will also be very involved in whichever capacity in the whole movement to change the immigration policy in the country for the better. There's a lot of work to be done changing our nation's immigration policy".

 

However, he said if he were called up to serve in government again by a new administration next year, it would certainly be something he would consider seriously. "Of course, I would have absolutely no issue with that."

 

"In fact," he said, "I am so convinced that after four-and-a-half years, a mid-career public service commitment is such a phenomenal thing for an individual. It is so rewarding because you are able to take the experience and the knowledge and really make use of it as an expert."

 

"For me, it's been a phenomenal experience and the good thing is that the Department was very supportive of what I was doing and has always welcomed our annual reports and has really helped in allowing me to pursue the remaking -- if you will -- of USCIS."

 

Khatri said, "If you look at the 73-odd formal recommendations that we have made, we've laid out the full transformation program for USCIS. The problem is the agency being able to actually grasp what we are saying and begin the process of change that is necessary to implement the recommendations."

 

Khatri was known for his stinging criticism of the USCIS and full not pull his punches when he appeared before the Congress each year since his appointment to submit his annual report and testify before lawmakers on both the agency's progress as well as its failings.

 

In the interview, he was equally hard-hitting and while acknowledging that "there are some wonderful people working at USCIS", asserted, "but the key is the speed with which we need these recommendations implemented to make real change."

 

"I mean, for example." he explained, "this past summer, the disastrous front-logs and all of the employment-based green card issues were all things that we have previously identified and had submissions for. And, so, it should not be necessary for the agency to have to continually make itself look bad."

 

Khatri said that this has "been my concern as the agency has some great people and why is the leadership not meeting the employees needs by adopting very important and necessary changes which their own people are telling that these are what need to be made."

 

He said the recent changes in the Federal Bureau of Investigation background checks for green card applicants, which he had been pushing for several months "is a small first step, but my only regret with that is that USCIS did not do these things for people who are already checked multiple times over and those are naturalization application who have been previously checked."

 

Khatri argued that "it is one thing to do it for people who haven't been checked in the past, and it makes no sense if you are going to do it for people who have not been checked in the past. Why can't you do it for people who already have been checked within the last five years for the most part by the same FBI checks--why are you putting the person through the same name-check process and taking the same amount of time again and again."

 

'So my hope is that the agency will do the right thing by reviewing their policies," he said.

 

Khatri said he was not advocating the elimination of the FBI name-checks.

 

"I am saying make it consistent, make it efficient and make it speedy because by delaying, you are in effect allowing individuals to remain here."

 

"And, in the case of naturalization applicants, if there are bad people, why aren't we removing them? They have access to all the systems, they have driver's licences, they have social security cards, they have credit cards, they have everything else."

 

Khatri said that "if they are bad people, they should be the first to be checked and quick decisions needs to be made, instead of sitting on them and creating havoc and so much additional work for the agency."

 

He said if there was a personal high for him in terms of achievements during his tenure, it would have to be the Dallas Pilot Program "which was such a phenomenal testament to the fact that in order to achieve security in this nation, it doesn't have to come at the cost of protracted delays in processing".

 

Khatri said this programme which set record timings of five days processing largely proved that the majority of people immigrating to the US are hardworking decent individuals.

 

He said it also brought about a more customer-friendly process that was replicated in other cities and USCIS centers across the country and said the success of this program "flies in the face of what a lot of people think that to get security, you have to have nastiness, you have to have delays, you have to have inefficient processes."

 

"But in fact," he added, "we proved that theory completely wrong and turned it upside down -- that you can actually have a secure America, having people feel free, people feel more secure by having processes done faster and that in a democracy this is such a reassuring thing."

 

Khatri also said he felt good that during his tenure there had been some tangible progress in the revamping of the employment-based green card process solution.

 

"We had identified the problem over 2-3 years ago in our annual report and this past summer what I had predicted just a few weeks earlier in our 2007 report, actually occurred, and the agency solution to that thankfully was such a humane solution."

 

Khatri said "a lot of work was done by our office in solving that problem -- at least the initial solution -- but now obviously the consequences are something that we will all be suffering through and that is that many of these individuals happen to be professionals that come from two countries--India and China."

 

"And, unfortunately, because of the way our employment-based preference categories work, many of then could be stuck for 15-20 years if the current law is not changed. They will continue to be able to work here and live here, but they may not get their green cards for as many as 20 years for some people."

 

Khatri said the solution for this problem "only the Congress will be able to work on, but some of it could have been avoided if they agency had acted properly".

 

He also said that another major achievement he could be proud of during the four-and-a-half years he had served in government was that he was able to alleviate the lack of openness and the lack of transparency in the agency, which could now boast of being more of an open book in terms of status of application, priority dates and such. 

 

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC