As they munched on pineapples from the tropics, gummy bears from Germany and tea from England, about 30 students discussed the notion of America as a country supported by immigrants, foreigners and imported products.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman Prakash Khatri spoke about immigration and security in America at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea on Friday afternoon. Khatri’s talk focused on the changing attitudes toward immigration after 9/11.
Khatri — who wore an American flag in his lapel during the Master’s Tea — entered government service following the Sept. 11 attacks, after a career in immigration law at Walt Disney World in Florida. After the Al Qaida attacks, Khatri said, he saw Americans had begun to blame immigrants and foreigners for social problems. He decided to enter the political arena to help lower the barriers that America was building around itself to keep foreigners out.
Khatri said he contacted the White House about a job in July 2003 and was told that they had created a new position for an ombudsman in the Department of Homeland Security.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” Khatri said.
As ombudsman, Khatri assists individuals and employers who have problems with the immigration services agency. He also suggests improvements to government policies regarding citizenship and immigration.
The main problem the USCIS currently faces is balancing conflicting demands of security and civil rights, Khatri said.
“In the past, individuals could wear a veil and not be recognized unless they were involved in a negative situation,” he said. “Twenty years ago, law enforcement did not want to know about you. Today if you are not identified, you literally are a person that could be a threat to the nation.”
He pointed out that using biometrics like retinal scans and fingerprints for identification would simplify matters and prevent confusion in name-check processes, where similarities between names can lead to false accusations. The inadequacy of name-check processes has frustrated some prospective airline travelers who find themselves stopped and questioned because their names are similar to names on the terrorist watch list. But biometric databases are seen by many as a breach of privacy more suited to a police state than a democratic country, he said.
When asked by an audience member about the efficiency of the name-check process — considering that any potential terrorist would probably use a pseudonym — Khatri said that the act in and of itself is comforting for the department.
“It gives us a reassurance that we are doing something,” Khatri said.
Overall, Khatri said, it is important to keep the doors open for legal immigration, since to stop bringing foreign labor into the country would create a serious national problem.
“There are nations growing exponentially, while we are going through a slow growth,” he said. “We need foreign labor to keep growing. The 20th century was our century, and we want to continue the democratization of the world in the 21st century, rather than have someone tell us what to do.”
Students had mixed feelings about the speech, although most agreed that Khatri seemed to avoid answering difficult questions and gave safe, noncontroversial responses instead.
“When I heard that someone from the Department of Homeland Security was coming, I thought, ‘Big Brother is coming, that should be interesting.’” Brian Bills ’11 said. “[Khatri] was reasonable and balanced, though he raised more questions that he answered.”
Sophia Popova ’11 said she thought it was difficult for Khatri to openly answer some questions due to his official position.
“I thought that a lot of the questions asked were impossible to answer,” she said. “[The audience] put him in a tight spot.”
Stiles Master Stuart Schwartz said immigration is an extremely relevant topic for the Yale community, which includes a large number of immigrants and foreign students and researchers.
“We have many foreign students, and immigration, both legal and illegal, is a sensitive issue right now,” Schwartz said. “There are people who want to build fences around us.”
Stiles graduate Marc Sorel ’04, who works at the Citizenship and Immigration Services, had suggested that the college invite Khatri to speak, Schwartz said.