America's Immigration System Desperately Needs a Digital Makeover

The god-awful technology that makes up the United States' immigration system is finally being updated, after several failed attempts.

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Apr 25 2016, 4:00am

Image by Rodney Hazard

Shortly after Maura Bastarache and Semih Oray married in July 2015, they filed an application for permanent residency with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Oray, a Turkish citizen, had come to the United States on a student visa to attend a university in Boston, but now that he was married to Bastarache, an American citizen, he could apply for a green card, making him eligible to receive federal funding for school.

The paperwork alone was, as Bastarache put it, "a nightmare." They waded through six separate immigration forms and rounded up their tax returns, birth certificates, and marriage license. Then in March, after months of back and forth with immigration officials, Oray was told he'd been approved for a green card. USCIS sent notice that they'd mailed the green card on March 16, and it was scheduled to arrive by March 19.

And so they waited. And waited. When March 19 came and went without a green card in the mailbox, they waited some more. Eventually, Oray called the local post office, who offered the possibility that it was "lost in the mail." And when he called an immigration officer to figure out what to do next, he was told, to his dismay, that this sort of thing happens all the time.

Mail problems are far from the only flaws in the immigration system in the United States. The sheer amount of paperwork is taxing on immigration officers, who have to pass applications between various agencies, and the processing time is slow, which can delay legal immigration status. Those delays have real consequences: People are forced to leave their jobs and leave the country. Oray, for example, was told it could take up to nine months to process his application for a replacement green card, which would be too late to apply for federal financial aid this year. For the six million people who apply for immigration benefits every year, a litany of confusing forms and an archaic processing system stand between them and legal status in America.

When one of those pieces of paper gets lost (as they do, frequently), finding it is like "looking for a needle in a pile of needles," according to William Stock, a Philadelphia-based attorney with Klasko Immigration Law Partners LLP and the president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "The only difference between preparing applications today from when I started 22 years ago is that we used a typewriter back then."

But that system is finally starting to improve, after a decades-long effort to modernize the immigration system in the US.

Related: How Mexican Immigrants Are Using Burner Phones to Evade Border Patrol

The first serious effort to digitize started in 2006, when USCIS began developing a new, shiny all-electronic immigration system. The system, which would come to be called ELIS, was created with the help of IBM and was meant to modernize a process that had for decades been stuck in the dark ages.

When ELIS rolled out in 2012, it was a spectacular failure. Six years and $1.7 billion had amounted to three electronic forms, two of which had to be scrapped because they were so glitchy. The number of lost green cards, like Oray's, actually increased after the ELIS system was deployed, and the new electronic forms—which didn't include features like a functional search bar—took twice as long to process as the old-fashioned paper version, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.

The government has had technology disasters before (think about all the problems with healthcare.gov). That's partly because most governmental software is built using what's called a "waterfall" approach, where developers make a list of everything the system needs to do, build it, test it, and release it as one big package. That process works pretty well if you're, say, building a helicopter, but not so much when you're building software for an agency whose needs are constantly changing, according to Eric Hysen, the Department of Homeland Security's digital service lead.

Hysen, formerly a software engineer at Google, was one of the founding members of the United States Digital Service, a White House project designed to help federal agencies improve their technology. He and his team were called in to evaluate the immigration system in 2014, after USCIS had already made the decision to scrap the old, faulty system. (A spokesperson for USCIS declined to comment on the problems with the past system, but redirected me to Hysen, whose team has been instrumental in facilitating the technological upgrades.) The first major decision by USCIS was shifting from the "waterfall" approach of software development to the "agile" model, which means creating pieces of software in small increments, then testing and releasing it as it's built.

The initial step in rebuilding a digital system is translating the paper forms into electronic versions. So far, only two forms are available electronically, but about a quarter of the roughly 100 immigration forms are now processed digitally on the back end.

But Hysen says the real goal is to "reimagine the immigration experience" beyond just digitizing forms. A few years ago, USCIS hired Ideo, a Bay Area design consulting firm, to dream up a more accessible immigration system. That led to my.uscis.gov, which lets immigrants view their status and spells out in plain English what they need to do to apply for a new benefit. Though the site is still fairly new, the idea is to make the immigration system as user-friendly as TurboTax has for taxes.

Screenshot from my.uscis.gov

Those systems could go a long way for people who can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on an immigration attorney on top of pricey immigration fees. Daniel Acevedo, who handled his wife's green card application in 2014, said a system like this would've saved them time, money, and stress. "Toward the very end of the process, I was having issues with a few pages [of the application] and the National Visa Center kept returning it," he told me. He'd mail packages of paperwork to the NVC, and months later, they'd send it back telling him he'd filled the form out wrong. "We were scared the application was going to get rejected." Eventually, they buckled and paid for an immigration attorney to review the paperwork.

"We live in a time when the world is getting so much smaller," said Acevedo. "And if you want to be with someone from a different country, it shouldn't be that hard." (His wife eventually got her green card.)

Hysen said USCIS will continue to improve and adapt its technology based on the needs of immigration agencies and immigrants alike. Eventually, immigrants will be able to upload scanned documents (like birth certificates) rather than sending them through the mail and access electronic immigration forms on smart phones and tablets.

And although the new system has been slow to roll out, the bits and pieces that are online seem functional—efficient, even. Oray, whose green card has still not materialized, recently used the online I-90 form to request a replacement. "It was a lot easier, faster, and much more user-friendly," said Bastarache, his wife, who is an IT manager, "especially considering we're in 2016, not 1990."

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