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Update Failed to Install: Digitization at USCIS

On June 30, 2021, the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman) released its annual report to Congress. In the report, the office outlined key developments and areas of focus for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Most interestingly, the report notes a congressional mandate for USCIS “to submit a 5-year plan to establish electronic filing procedures for all immigration forms, and to implement a system to facilitate two-way electronic communications with its customers” by fiscal year 2026 and notes concerns about USCIS’s progress on these efforts.

USCIS’ journey to digitize its form filing system has been a tumultuous one since it first began the process in 2005. In that year, USCIS established the Transformation Program Office (TPO) with the hopes of digitizing more than 90 immigration benefit forms. In the following years, according to a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG), USCIS rolled out several pilot programs that “[tested] the viability of a number of fundamental IT system capabilities required for the transformation.” Some of these pilot programs yielded results, with the Integrated Digitization and Document Management Program (Digitization) leading to the scanning of more than 600,000 paper files and the usage of the Enterprise Document Management System (EDMS) by roughly 7,900 users. Overall, however, the DHS OIG criticized the insufficient development of digitization, citing lack of comprehensive review of these pilot programs and a decentralized effort to manage IT.

These criticisms of USCIS’ effort to digitize continued over the next few years as the agency continued to try to implement digital systems. In 2012, USCIS launched the Electronic Immigration System (ELIS) that was designed to allow electronic filing, case management and processing Forms I-539, I-526, and I-90.1 In 2016, due to criticisms about cost overruns and missed deliverables, this program folded and in the same year USCIS launched ELIS 2 that focused on the electronic implementation of Form N-400.2 However, this system too drew criticisms from the DHS OIG, which, in a 2017 report, found that this system introduced inefficiencies leading to an increase of 60% in backlogs and a doubling of the processing time for naturalization applications. The report led to the closing of ELIS 2.

Recent years have been more favorable to USCIS. Despite the pandemic, in FY2020 USCIS experienced a 20% increase in online filings compared to FY2019, after it “[reused] existing automation technologies and [established] new uses for simple technologies.” In the last two years, USCIS was also able to launch Forms I-539 and I-130 for digital filing and create an electronic filing system for the H-1B cap-lottery registration, which in March 2021 saw over 300,000 filings. Despite these gains, 16 years and $2 billion later, only 12 forms out of 99 are available electronically and about 45% of forms and benefits eligible for online filing are filed.

The latest CIS Ombudsman report outlined suggestions for USCIS to streamline the digitization process, including implementing outreach to encourage customers to file online and establishing relationships with third-party case-management and forms vendors. Such recommendations have been made before by CIS Ombudsman, such as in their 2019 annual report, but evidently more work needs to be done to satisfy this parameter. Other organizations such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) have cited frustrations with the lack of transparency regarding the digitization process which the 2021 CIS Ombudsman report notes as a concern. Fully adopting suggestions and acknowledging deficiencies made and noted by the Ombudsman, AILA, and other organizations could help USCIS in two ways.

First, given the nature of USCIS as a fee-funded agency, methods of generating more revenue are critical for its operations. A 2020 report by the Federation of American Scientists found that, even before the pandemic, USCIS was on its way to financial insolvency. However, the report also found that if USCIS expanded its premium processing program, it could help alleviate its financial strain. The premium processing program, intended to expedite the filing process for users at a higher price, would generate somewhere between $685 million to $1.06 billion annually if expanded, which under the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extensions Act of 2020 made possible. All this revenue would come from Forms I-140, I-129, I-539, and OPT-based I-765s, which, except for Form I-140, are forms that USCIS have previously made plans to or have already implemented electronically.3 Fully digitizing these forms and jointly expanding the premium processing program could help alleviate the financial strain that USCIS currently faces.

Secondly, digitization could lessen the over one million case backlog in the immigration court system. An analysis of this backlog by AILA found that about 462,000, or 37%, of the backlog could be adjudicated by USCIS to give these individuals a legitimate pathway to lawful status. These cases include removal of conditions on lawful permanent resident’s status (Forms I-751 and I-829) and section 245 adjustment of status (Form I-485). 4 Given the Ombudsman’s recommendations, which include prioritizing the digitization of high impact, high-volume immigration benefit filings such as Form I-485, the ability to clear backlogs in these cases at USCIS could provide relief for an overloaded court system.

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Despite the efforts of the last few decades, USCIS still relies heavily on adjudication by paper documents. Digitizing this process could help relieve resource strain and generate more revenue for the agency, which could reduce the hefty case backlogs. BPC will track this process over the next few years.

End Notes:

1 Form I-539 (Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status), Form I-526 (Immigrant Petition by Alien Investor), Form I-90 (Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card)
2 Form N-400 (Application for Naturalization)
3 Form I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker), Form I-129 (Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker), Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization)
4 Form I-751 (Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence), Form I-829 (Petition by investor to Remove Conditions on Permanent Resident Status), Form I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status)

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