USCIS Is Going Paperless (Someday): What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

by Elizabeth Brettschneider


They say the art of letter writing is dead, and yet every week we send carefully penned letters, laboriously printed on reams of dead trees and lovingly hand-signed in blue or black ink, a choice that can be surprisingly important to the receiving agent at US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). Many US government agencies have implemented electronic forms for everything from paying your taxes to registering to vote. And, of course, many people have been conducting much of their personal business online for decades now—from ordering lunch to banking to managing their 401(k).

Yet, it seems like it was only yesterday that a USCIS newsletter reported that the Service was starting to adjudicate TPS (temporary protected status) cases electronically by using a system called CasePro (Center Adjudication System, Electronic Processing). They spoke of it as revolutionary, reducing the number of staff needed to work on this application type from one hundred to twenty-five and they ended the article by surmising what else will be possible for other applications in the future. It wasn’t yesterday, though. It was 2005.

So it has now been eleven years since that report and USCIS does not seem much further along in bringing electronic filings to the public. As of now, only the I-90 application to file for a replacement (or renewal) Green Card can be filed electronically. The background of how this came to be is a longer story. The I-90 form seems to be a forerunner for other forms going paperless. Although for the past few years the I-90 form could be filed online and the payment made by credit card, the supporting documents (i.e., copy of the passport, Green Card, and other materials) had to be mailed to USCIS. Thus the applicant still had to actually mail documents to USCIS, eliminating much of the benefit of “electronically” filing an application. Still, it was useful for the purposes of getting the I-90 application in to USCIS immediately and having an instantaneous receipt notice to prove that the case had been filed; however, the filing steps still required physical documents to be mailed.

Now USCIS has a new portal called ELIS (which stands for Electronic Immigration System) which allows the I-90 application to be filed completely online—meaning the forms, the fee payment, and the uploading of supporting documents can all be done electronically. No paper has to be mailed to USCIS.  This online electronic system, originally budgeted at $536,000 with a 2013 completion date, now has a price tag of $2.6 billion and isn't expected to be fully operational until 2018 or 2019

Any form that previously allowed electronic submission of the forms and fees but required supporting evidence to be mailed was subsequently taken down from the online filing site with an announcement that all electronic filings would now be done through their new portal called ELIS.

The site now contains the following message: “USCIS is transitioning to a new system called the Electronic Immigration System. The new system is faster, more secure, and easier to upgrade and update. The forms being removed from the legacy e-Filing system will not be available immediately in the Electronic Immigration System, but there are plans to add them in the future.”

While as of the writing of this post only the I-90 can be electronically filed, at a recent American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) conference, USCIS announced that the form used to file citizenship applications, the N-400, would soon be available to electronically file but only if the applicant is not represented by an attorney—since at this time the electronic system is not set up to handle the form G-28 (used to indicate an attorney is representing an applicant on an application).

Although there has been little tangible progress made toward USCIS’ aim to go paperless, we do see steps being made to get ready for the future of electronic filing. For example, many of the new editions of various application forms now include a large barcode-looking graphic at the bottom. This barcode is used so that the officers can scan in the biographic information included on the form without having to perform manual data entry of the information. USCIS’ ability to capture data in this way seems to indicate their movement towards going completely paperless in the future. Although inevitable, I have mixed feelings about it and how it will affect our practice. I thought I would examine the pros and cons to going electronic, which is definitely going to happen at some point. Definitely. It’s got to, right?

Pros

If the future is paperless, one of the benefits will be the ease of sending and receiving signed application forms and evidence to and from clients. Without having to request that the client mail back the original signatures on paper, requesting instead a scan will not only cut costs on printing and mailing but it will also save turnaround time—allowing an application to be prepared and submitted without waiting for the (often unreliable US Postal Service or other courier) to deliver the original forms back before filing with USCIS.

Of course, the great thing about electronic signatures being allowed is the benefit to the environment. Our firm goes through a lot of paper photocopying not only the forms but also the voluminous exhibits that accompany each case. To be able to simply upload scans of the evidence would save the reams of paper we go through in any given week. Nonimmigrant petition applications such as the H-1B, O-1, L-1, among others, require that we submit the petition to USCIS in duplicate. This often means hundreds of pages of paper are being printed, copied, and mailed to USCIS. Multiply that by the many thousands of applications submitted every week across the country, and you’re saving more than a few trees!

Another benefit I foresee with a system that allows us to upload forms and evidence electronically rather than mail them in to USCIS is that there is less chance that evidence is lost. While it doesn’t happen every week, there are certainly times when things have gone wrong with the submission of a petition. Sometimes the problem is on the courier’s side—losing the package or (more commonly) damaging it—but sometimes it’s at USCIS where delays occur.

When things go normally, it takes one to two weeks to get the receipt notice in the mail confirming that a case has been physically received and properly filed; however, there are times when it can take much longer to get any notice. A formal inquiry cannot even be placed until thirty days have elapsed. To know instantaneously after submission that a case is now with USCIS without any incident would be a huge benefit—even if just psychologically. On behalf of those practitioners who tend to lose sleep worrying over details like a safe courier delivery to USCIS, I would welcome this relief.    

It’s not just the electronic upload of documents that would be a relief, but also the processing of fee payments. Right now, we staple a check to every application—which just seems so old fashioned. To be able to pay via electronic bank transfer or credit card would be so much more efficient.

Cons

Not everything about the proposed paperless filings is positive in my opinion. For one thing, I am sure to have trust issues regarding the security of the data we would be sending to USCIS. Given the current news is full of stories of cyber-security issues and hacks, it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the ability of the government to keep information secure. Since the proprietary information of major companies as well as that of celebrity foreign nationals is included in many applications, there could certainly be incentives for hackers to try to obtain the information. 

If I zoom out, however, for a moment to really assess what it is about electronic filing that worries me, it comes from a place of “old fogeyness.” I know I sound old fashioned when I admit to the following, but I can’t help but feel better about the ease of review when a person is handling pieces of paper as opposed to scrolling through electronic pages. Depending on the age of the officers, this may be an adjustment. If my preferences are any indication, I still like to review an application in hard copy. I like to be able to flip between the forms and the exhibits. Still, I know with multiple screens, there is a way to do the same thing on a computer. I just know that USCIS often misses exhibits when they are included in the paper application. It seems even more likely they will miss information when scrolling through pages on a computer screen.

While there are certainly things to be wary of, the concerns can most likely be addressed by USCIS. All in all, it’s probably a good thing for our government to be modernizing—I just have to do the same.