There is no doubt that the United States is an in-demand destination for immigrants, whether based on family ties, for employment opportunities, or for humanitarian reasons. Indeed, in fiscal year 2020, USCIS received over 7 million applications, and the country currently has over 44 million immigrants living in it.
Despite all the technology available in other areas of life, especially in the US, this technological sophistication hasn’t fully reached the immigration space. Most applications that USCIS processes still have to be submitted on paper by mail, including hard copies of supporting documents, and when you consider that hundreds of thousands of employment-based visas are awarded to high-skilled professionals in the tech space, it’s hard to imagine that the immigration system hasn’t looked for ways to innovate to make the process.
USCIS has, over the years, sought to allow for e-filing of some applications, but these efforts have taken lots of time and money and the results have been less than optimal in the view of many practitioners.
Today USCIS is trying again, and is consulting with a number of immigration technology companies who are already building tools that improve the immigration process for individual applicants, employers and law firms alike. The goal this time around is to actively work with immigration tech stakeholders to hopefully, finally, bring a comprehensive and user-friendly online filing platform to the USCIS benefits process.
So, in this article we’re going to dive into some of the history of USCIS’s last attempt to digitize immigration, and then share a few high-level updates on what the immigration bar is hoping to achieve this time around.
ELIS: USCIS’S first (and pretty unsuccessful) attempt to digitize US immigration
2022 is not the first time that USCIS has tried to bring digital innovation into the immigration process in an attempt to make it more efficient. In fact, the agency’s first attempt at this spanned more than a decade, and a whole lot of money. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very successful, but thankfully, there are lessons to learn from the way things were done that first time around.
ELIS, which stands for Electronic Immigration System, was launched in 2005. But after a decade of work and two versions of ELIS launched totalling over $1 billion dollars, USCIS had only managed to turn two of the 94 immigration application forms in the immigration system electronic.
The main issue with the initial roll-out of ELIS stemmed from the fact that the system wasn’t built to account for all the file review that would happen after an application was submitted. None of the behind-the-scenes work that adjudicators had to do to review supporting documents and paperwork was incorporated into the original online platform.
Here are some of the issues that ELIS faced over time:
- Technology changed faster than USCIS could (or did) integrate into ELIS: by the time there was a new version of ELIS that could be tested, there was often new technology that made the technology ELIS was based on obsolete.
- Digital isn’t always better than paper-based: The way that ELIS was being developed was based on the assumption that digital processing would be superior to paper-based, when that was not always the case. There were steps in the immigration adjudication process that could not be incorporated into ELIS, like verifying aliases, which adjudicators check for manually. In some cultures, people use different aliases over the course of their lifetimes, which have to be verified as part of their background checks, but that wasn’t appropriately integrated into ELIS.
- The technology to make certain processes faster wasn’t available yet: To streamline many adjudication processes, USCIS would have needed to incorporate advanced machine learning and optical recognition technologies (e.g. to scan uploaded documents) that didn’t exist in any meaningful way in the early 2000s.
- The system was not designed with adjudicator input: ELIS was designed thinking that the immigration application review process was linear, when in fact, it isn't. Indeed, one application may be reviewed multiple times by multiple individuals, and move back and forth between various steps in the adjudication process. ELIS didn’t have a mechanism that allowed for files to be moved back and forth between people, making it impractical when parts of the file needed additional review and needed to be sent elsewhere. ELIS developers were working with people who had experience in immigration, but in some cases, hadn’t been working in immigration for a long time. In fact, developers only got a real grasp of the work of immigration adjudicators at service centers once they visited one in person, at which point ELIS was already developed and being tested.a
- Because of all its shortcomings, USCIS adjudicators disliked ELIS: Given that in practice, ELIS caused more problems than it solved due to outages, lack of streamlined adjudication tools, and more, ELIS became an obstacle to adjudicators’ jobs, and they resented the system for making their job harder.
At the end of the day, ELIS was admittedly not very successful. But USCIS is aware of that, and is now restarting its effort and is working to correct one of the things that was not done as much as it should have been in the ELIS development process: involving more stakeholders early and throughout in order to develop a truly best-in-class system.
A wishlist for an ideal USCIS digital immigration platform
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, which has been facilitating meetings with the USCIS Ombudsman, has helped connect immigration technology companies who have specific insights and recommendations based on experience currently supporting lawyers who file immigration applications. One of those recommendations is utilizing an Application Programming Interface, otherwise known as API.
In simple terms, an API is code that allows for the transfer of information from one platform to another. Developing APIs would be a solution that would allow for connecting immigration tech tools that are currently available in the market, and that immigration lawyers and professionals are already using, to a USCIS platform in a way that would allow these systems to “talk to each other.” Basically, it would allow immigration lawyers who currently create complete immigration applications on platforms like Docketwise to send those complete applications directly to USCIS instead of sending them to a printer to then ship to USCIS by mail.
Taking this into account, here are some of the recommendations we would love to see in a digital USCIS platform.
- Immigration tech platforms that integrate with USCIS should have access to a testing environment so test updates work before they are released officially by USCIS. This access would include validating integrations and troubleshooting when issues come up before USCIS would go live, to minimize errors and issues with real applications.
- Platforms that integrate with USCIS should have access to some kind of platform that helps them resolve issues outside of the immigration case environment that are not related to a lawyer’s or applicant’s work.
- USCIS should give users advance notice of updates and clear deadlines as to go-live dates so that existing immigration case management providers and other immigration tech companies can update their software in a timely manner.
- When integrations are released, users should have a chance to test them early and provide feedback to USCIS team members, including USCIS immigration officials and software developers.
- Error messages should be informative enough that would allow users to take action to solve whatever issue is causing the message, including data issues and rejections. For example, if someone inputs their i-94 number in an incorrect format, the error message should not just tell them that it’s wrong, but explain what the right format is.
- USCIS should provide a way to share application details so that lawyers and applicants can receive automatic confirmations of submissions, approvals, and updates to their cases in real time.
- USCIS should pace their release of updates and new forms to give applicants and lawyers time to adjust to how to use them. As users provide feedback on how the newest forms are working, USCIS developers can work to incorporate that feedback into subsequent releases in an iterative manner.
These are, of course, wish-list items that are meant to provoke ideas and suggestions as we continue to push for innovation within the immigration space. The process will likely be slow, but slow and steady still does tend to win the race.
Docketwise: using innovation to improve immigration
In the meantime, our team at Docketwise is still laser-focused on building the best immigration forms and case management platform on the market. We believe we can learn from all stakeholders in the immigration and legal technology industries to make Docketwise the best tool to streamline your immigration case management, from communications, client onboarding and payments, and more. Learn more about Docketwise at www.docketwise.com
As we continue to work alongside other stakeholders in the immigration and legal technology industry, we’re also working hard on making Docketwise the best tool to streamline and automate your casework, client relationships and more at your law firm. Learn more about Docketwise here: http://www.docketwise.com.