The Nation: “US Immigration Is Stuck in the Stone Age—and It’s Putting Lives In Danger.”

by Joseph McKeown

US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) reportedly spends $300 million per year on paper and their alleged mismanagement of paper-based applications as well as clerical errors in processing paper-based evidence has caused serious consequences for certain immigrants. The agency has repeatedly failed to come up with a viable electronic-based filing system, which ultimately might improve processing efficiency and times, despite spending over a billion dollars over a thirteen-year time period. The consequences for errors on applications are especially severe, since if certain applications are denied, even due to minor errors, this may automatically initiate removal proceedings for certain applicants. The mismanagement of paper files and clerical errors can be especially serious  for immigrants who lack legal representation, the necessary language skills, or who have difficulty navigating a complicated immigration system. 

In one example, USCIS asked attorney Maxine Bayley’s client to submit additional evidence for a Green Card application. Bayley sent the information to USCIS via FedEx, who confirmed the delivery. But the government later said they never received the additional items. “Instead of notifying him,” Bayley tells The Nation, “they closed his case. And the basis for that denial was that they didn’t receive this document.” The client was forced to open a new case, pay a second round of fees, and “spend years” waiting for case to process. Amira Mikhail, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, experienced an issue with the agency misprinting her client’s address on mailed documents. The letters bounced, putting her case in jeopardy until Mikhail contacted the agency to fix it.  “Imagine a scenario in which the petitioner is not represented by an attorney,” she says. “They’d never get the notice, and they’d get blamed for not responding, or deal with the consequences of not responding: a closed case.”

The failure for USCIS to successfully digitize has been a topic of conversation over the years. In 2015, the Washington Post noted that after a decade and $1 billion dollars, a project to digitize USCIS immigration forms and the application process only resulted in one electronic form. The digitization project, which was originally supposed to cost $500 million and be completed in 2013, was in 2015 estimated at $3.1 billion and is still yet to be completed. In a 2017 article published by Forbes, Cesare Alessandrini, CEO of immigration software company FileRight, calls it the “billion-dollar bluff” noting that the multibillion-dollar transformation effort had only resulted in increasing filing fees and processing times and extensive backlogs. The USCIS’ Electronic Immigration System (ELIS), which was supposed to fully digitize immigration paperwork, only resulted in budget overages, product delays, and software defects. According to a governmental report, ELIS was directly responsible for at least 19,000 incidents, including Green Cards produced with incorrect information, or issued in duplicate, or cases where Green Cards were issued when they never should have been.

Michael Jarecki, the former chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)’s Chicago chapter, isn’t sure the agency wants things faster or simpler, especially under a government that doesn’t hide its hostility to immigrants. “USCIS is still in the stone ages,” he tells The Nation. “Everything we prepare is paper-based. If there is an electronic copy of something, like a marriage visa, they don’t have the capacity to review that. We are way behind.”