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Opinion This latest trick from the Trump administration is one of the most despicable yet

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, takes a question while speaking in the White House press briefing room on Aug. 12, 2019. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

SAN FRANCISCO — After Yolanda was raped, she ran.

She ran from the basement where her attacker had trapped her for three hours. She ran until she found her way to a police station, a place that people such as Yolanda usually avoid at all costs.

Yolanda, a Guatemalan in her 40s, is undocumented. She’s been living in the shadows for more than a decade. But Congress created a program intended to encourage immigrants like her to come forward about heinous crimes like this one: the U-visa, for crime victims who assist law enforcement.

Even so, for several months after her assault, she still agonized about whether to apply, which would requiring turning over information not just to local police but to the Trump administration. But lawyers said she had a slam-dunk case.

Then, unexpectedly, the feds rejected her application. Why? Because … her youngest son doesn’t have a middle name.

If that sounds arbitrary and irrelevant, that’s probably by design. Over the past few months, the Trump administration has quietly been rolling out a Kafkaesque new processing policy for select categories of visas: If any fields on a form are left blank, it will automatically be rejected. Even if it makes no sense for the applicant to fill out that field.

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For example, if “Apt. Number” is left blank because the immigrant lives in a house: rejected. Or if the field for a middle name is left blank because no middle name exists: rejected, too.

It’s not clear what problem this new policy was intended to solve. In response to a detailed list of questions about the purpose behind the processing change, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sent only a vague statement saying applicants “must provide the specific information requested and answer all the questions asked.” It’s hard not to see this as a preposterous new layer of red tape designed to deny visas to legally eligible applicants such as Yolanda.

The policy change, at first affecting just asylum applicants, was announced without fanfare on the USCIS website sometime in the fall.

“We will not accept your [application] if you leave any fields blank,” reads a note you wouldn’t know existed unless someone told you where to find it. “You must provide a response to all questions on the form, even if the response is ‘none,’ ‘unknown’ or ‘n/a.’ ”

Then, days before the New Year, USCIS added a similar notice for U-visa applications. In both cases the processing changes were effective immediately — even if documents had been mailed in before the policy was announced.

Such was the case for Yolanda. (Yolanda is her middle name, which I am using to protect her privacy.)

Yolanda’s lawyer mailed her application as soon as he received all the required paperwork, including a certification from police proving Yolanda’s assistance. It went out Dec. 28 and arrived at the USCIS service center on Dec. 30. That’s the same day the new policy was announced online, so some faceless bureaucrat decided to reject her.

To be clear, the absence of a son’s middle name wasn’t the only blank on her application. As many attorneys told me has always been common practice, she also left other fields unfilled if they didn’t apply.

For example, she checked the boxes saying each of her sons is “single.” A subsequent section says: “If your family member was previously married, list the names of your family member’s prior spouses and the dates his or her marriages were terminated.” Because no “prior spouses” exist, she didn’t enter anything; USCIS cited this, too, among the reasons for rejection.

Yolanda is hardly the only victim of maliciously persnickety bureaucrats. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has collected 140 other examples of allegedly “incomplete” forms: an 8-year-old child who listed “none” for employment history but left the dates of employment field blank. An applicant who entered names of three siblings, but the form has spaces for four.

Immigration attorneys told me that they will start writing “none” or “N/A” in every field, on every form. But even that could cause problems.

“There’s going to be just hundreds of people processed under the Trump administration who will legally have the middle name ‘N/A,’ ” said Jessica Farb, an attorney with the Immigration Center for Women and Children, the nonprofit that represents Yolanda.

Besides, many immigrants (including most asylum seekers) are unable to hire attorneys and might not learn about the bizarre no-blanks policy until it’s too late.

Some of the time, immigrants can resubmit their applications amended with superfluous “nones” and “N/As.” But the resulting delays can lead required documents to expire or cause immigrants to lose their eligibility.

That’s what happened to Yolanda’s oldest son, whom the U-visa program allowed her to include as part of her application. He turned 21 between the time the application was originally filed (late December) and when her rejection arrived in the mail (last week). He has now aged out of eligibility. Yolanda’s attorneys have asked USCIS officials to recognize the original receipt date.

“I ask God that’s how they see it,” says Yolanda, who is terrified of being separated from her children. “I ask God.”

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