Nextgov: "New USCIS Computer Was Supposed to Speed Up Immigration Processing. What Went Wrong?"

by Joseph McKeown

The online electronic system that was supposed to transition US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) away from paper-based applications to a sophisticated and secure online system has faced major delays and increasingly high budget costs and isn't expected to be fully operational until 2018 or 2019. This system, called the Electronic Immigration System (or ELIS, to honor our nation's first federal immigration processing center) is an online, account-based system that allows users to "submit and view certain benefit requests, receive electronic notification of decisions, and receive real-time case status updates."

Currently ELIS is only available for paying the immigrant visa fee and for I-539 applications as well as EB-5 Investor Visa applications. (For a short window I-90 applications were accepted). The ELIS system was originally budgeted at $536,000 with a 2013 completion date and now has a price tag of $2.6 billion, which has been financed by USCIS application fees. The system was designed to streamline the immigration application process and make case review and adjudication more effective and efficient for the estimated 18,000 USCIS officers and contractors who process the six million immigration benefits yearly.

Nextgov reports that as USCIS fixes, programs, and further develops ELIS capabilities USCIS field offices continue to use outdated and incompatible systems and that the most troubling aspect is "paper files have proved more efficient than ELIS as it currently operates." Indeed, a 2014 Inspector General report found that it takes twice as long for an officer to close a case with ELIS than with paper documents, citing the 100 to 150 clicks required for moving through the ELIS system. A staffer on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee says: "'Transitioning to an electronic system would improve USCIS’ search capability, help it analyze for patterns, and share information on an interagency basis[.]”

USCIS press secretary Shin Inouye says that going digital "'is a priority for USCIS,'" and that they "'will continue to engage with stakeholders, members of Congress, and interested individuals as we build a system that will transform the way USCIS accesses information and processes cases, while maintaining our commitment to ensuring the integrity of America’s immigration process.'"

In the meantime, FedEx, UPS, and the US Postal Service aren't complaining.

UPDATE (April 2, 2015): USCIS announced earlier this week that Form I-90, Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card, is available in the ELIS system after a short trial period last year. Lawful permanent residents may now use ELIS to apply for a replacement or renewal of their existing permanent resident card (i.e., Green Card). Conditional permanent residents may use ELIS to apply only for a replacement of an existing Green Card; they may not use this form to apply for an extension or renewal of their status.

UPDATE (June 24, 2015): USCIS announced that as of June 15, 2015, they are longer accepting electronically filed Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status, and Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur. In addition, USCIS  discontinued the Regional Center Document Library. For those who have a pending or draft case created before June 15, USCIS will continue to adjudicate those cases to completion and allow thirty days for completion and submission of the draft cases. Moreover, those who filed a Form I-539 or Form I-526 electronically before June 15 will still be able to access their account to check case status, change address, and respond to requests for evidence. Those who filed Form I-526 electronically will still be able to review and attest existing deal packages created by the Document Library Manager; however, Document Library Managers will not be able to create new document libraries or deal packages. Time to get out that typewriter again! (Okay, or maybe just fill the forms out on a computer.)