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To Modernize Legal Immigration System, Get Better Technology and Data

On July 15, the White House released its report on “Modernizing & Streamlining Our Legal Immigration System For The 21st Century”. The report, which is the result of an interagency working group formed as a part of President Obama’s November 2014 executive actions, includes more than 30 recommendations to improve and streamline the executive branch’s management of the legal immigration system. For those who have never tried to navigate the legal immigration processes to the United States, suffice it to say that the process could not be more opaque, non-intuitive or bureaucratic.1 Why is the process so difficult? In part because of the way it has evolved over the decades—being managed by at least three federal departments and agencies—and, in large part, because it is still a paper-based system that harkens back to the early part of the 20th century. The Obama administration is to be applauded for the systems-based, top-down approach it took to looking at the entire system and finding ways to improve its functioning—something that is long overdue.

Agencies still rely on a paper-based system

The final report includes several recommendations aimed at streamlining the legal immigration system, specifically relating to EB-5 investor visas, temporary workers, students and visitors. However, the success of the recommendations will depend on the ability to bring modern technology into the system. Agencies have been working on this issue for the better part of a decade, trying to “transform” a transactional, paper-based system into a modern technological system that can serve not only those applying for visas and other legal immigration benefits, but also the needs of the government and policy makers for better data and information about how our legal immigration system is working.

Members of Congress, successive secretaries of Homeland Security and the public have reiterated their desire for data and metrics about our immigration system. It seems obvious and intuitive, but in practice is difficult to obtain from the databases and systems that currently exist. Our report, Measuring the Metrics: Grading the Government on Immigration Enforcement, laid out the challenges to obtaining useful border and enforcement metrics, but statistics and data on the legal immigration system are also hard to come by.

Because there are several agencies involved in the legal immigration system, each agency collects and publishes its own set of statistics regarding its own portion of the process. Due to a lack of coordination or compilation of useful data, it is difficult to get a good picture of the current state of legal immigration. As stated in the White House report, “[t]o address the public interest in increased accuracy, accessibility, and transparency, DHS, State, and DOL [the Department of Labor] must re-conceptualize how data are collected, stored, and disseminated. Our shared mission with respect to the visa system is not simply to process visas, but to organize the data such that policymakers and the public can fully understand immigration flows and levels.”2

Hiring statisticians and data analysts is critical

The report includes several recommendations and actions promised by these agencies to improve data collection and reporting, starting with agency meetings to discuss how they will do so. There is nothing more boring and bureaucratic to the public than creating “an interagency working group,” but frankly without doing so, it is impossible to get agencies that report to different cabinet secretaries and different oversight committees in Congress, and have different budgets, to work together on any issue. This is the first necessary step in creating a holistic data picture of our immigration system.

Secondly, the report recommends hiring statisticians and data analysts to actually gather the statistics and do the data analysis. This also sounds like an idea so simple as to be obvious, but with almost all government agencies, those who get tasked with gathering and reporting on data are the actual users of the systems. This means that most often it is the officers, agents and adjudicators who are the ones to extract and consolidate data, then report it to leadership. While it is important for those that actually perform the operational functions of the agencies to be involved in the process, they generally do not have backgrounds in statistics and data analysis necessary to compile, examine and present data. Trained statisticians and analysts are essential to getting the data out there. External researchers should also have access to the data to perform additional analysis that can be helpful to the public and policy makers, although the report does not go that far in its recommendations.

A final important part of this process is to improve data collection. This means standardizing and developing quality control on how officers, agents and adjudicators enter data into the systems so that there is confidence in the data when reports are generated. This also means investing in technology that can help with data input quality (such as by including drop-down menus and logic checks to ensure that the data makes sense in the field in which it is entered, technologies that most of us encounter when we go to buy something online). This will require investments in technology upgrades and therefore congressional appropriations support. But members of Congress should see this investment as necessary to their role of oversight for the immigration system.

Improving the immigration process is critical to making our current system function as well as it can. But, fundamentally, it does not address the need to reevaluate the system as a whole to meet our national goals and values. That job continues to reside with Congress, a job we hope it will return to soon.

1 For a visual of the process, see this excellent chart.
2 White House report, p. 25.

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