Upgrading immigration: White House looks to digitize visa experience

A new report suggests specific ways to bring the US immigration process into the 21st century.

Eric Gay/AP Photo/File
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine agent's patch is seen as he patrols patrol near the Texas-Mexico border , Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in Rio Grande City, Texas. A new White House report, released July 15, 2015, is exploring ways to improve and upgrade the US immigration and visa application process.

In the United States, the word “immigration” tends to divide, not unite. But if there’s one thing Americans – regardless of color, creed, or politics – may be able to agree on, it’s that the visa application process needs an upgrade.

Enter the new White House report, released this month, that looks at how to organize and digitize the US immigration system.

Titled “Modernizing and Streamlining our Legal Immigration System for the 21st Century,” the report is a result of a month-long assessment of the Departments of State and Homeland Security and outlines specific steps to bring the nation’s antiquated and onerous visa application system into the digital age. Among its recommendations: Cut the amount of paperwork involved, improve communication between government agencies, and make the process as clear and simple as possible.

To put the report together, the White House enlisted the US Digital Service, formed in 2014 in response to the healthcare.gov fiasco and led by former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson.

“Currently, the process to apply for a visa is complex, paper-based, and confusing to the user. Many immigration documents pass through various computer systems and change hands no fewer than six times,” Mr. Dickerson wrote in a blog post he co-authored with Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Muñoz.

“Our goal is to modernize this process and deliver a positive experience to our users,” they added.

While much of the current immigration debate centers on legislation surrounding border security and undocumented immigrants, there is also an urgent need to update the technical process: The State Department issued nearly a quarter of a million immigrant visas in 2014, and as of November had more than 4.4 million visa applicants on its waiting list.

Potential reforms being discussed in Congress could benefit from the use of existing information and technologies, experts say.

“Think of what the TurboTax concept has done for the IRS,” Pat Schambach, former vice president and general manager of Homeland Security and Law Enforcement at Virginia-based IT firm CSC, said at a company Town Hall. “We can use technology to apply very similarly to the immigration process and really streamline the process.”

The report’s recommendations are straightforward. It proposes, for instance, the consolidation of payment methods, which are currently done separately for various steps in the application process.

“Paying multiple fees should be as simple as buying multiple items in an online shopping cart,” according to the report. “Separating the fees for different processes should happen entirely on the back-end.”

The report also recommends allowing forms such as family-sponsored immigrant petitions to be filed electronically, both to eliminate the need for paper and to make it easier for different departments to have access to the paperwork. It also suggests creating an online dashboard where applicants can view their case status, and redesigning the system based on applicants’ identities, not the forms they fill out.

“For example, a digital process that equates to filling out two paper forms should not require an applicant to enter their name and biographical information twice,” according to the report.

Some of the recommendations are already being tested in consular offices in Montreal, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, and Sydney, and a more expansive rollout is planned for 2016.

Of course, the report’s remedies are neither perfect nor all-encompassing.

“These fixes ... are just a bandaid on the gaping wound that is our convoluted and at times unjust immigration system,” wrote Issie Lapowsky, who first reported the story for Wired.

Still, she noted, “they could at least serve to ensure that no one has trouble securing a visa simply because the application is too complex. And that, at least, is a good place to start.”

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