Immigration agency opens gate for online applications

Tuesday - 5/22/2012, 1:16pm EDT

Alejandro Mayorkas, Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service

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After years of planning and months of delays, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service launched its portal for online applications on Tuesday. USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp they are calling the new electronic information system "ELIS," in recognition of the historical immigration gateway Ellis Island.

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas (Photo courtesy USCIS)

The logo for the new system even includes an image of the Statue of Liberty, which welcomed immigrants to the country as they entered Ellis Island.

"This is really the beginning of the future for our agency," Mayorkas said.

Tuesday's launch is the first phase in the agency's comprehensive Transformation Program. When completed, the USCIS will manage 6 to 7 million applications online every year.

"We are really transforming the agency from a paper-based agency to...an online environment. It's a very complex and challenging effort. It's something that other organizations have not succeeded in accomplishing, whether in the public or private sector," Mayorkas.

Slow but steady start

To ensure a smooth transition, ELIS is currently only open to individuals filing the I-539 form, which foreign students use to extend or change their visas. Starting the online system with a small group will allow the agency to work out any kinks.

"What we're going to be doing in the next...45 days is retooling and refining some of the characteristics of the initial launch here. And then we're going to be going into phase two," he said.

Phase two will allow organizations and individuals to open "accounts" where all immigration forms can be stored. Eventually, applicants will be able to submit applications, load supporting documents and receive case updates "in real time," all online.

The account system will make it "so that their applications, over time, if they go through the immigration life cycle...with the ultimate goal, of course, being naturalization, they have now established a single account. And all of those applications pass through a single account," Mayorkas said.

Streamlined process, but long wait times will remain

It will also be significantly easier for USCIS employees to adjudicate cases without having to shuffle a single hard-copy application back and forth across different offices throughout the country.

Mayorkas estimated a significant time savings of 15 percent to adjudicate cases, but don't expect notoriously long wait times for visas to become a thing of the past.

"Years-long wait times are really not a function of the work of our agency, but rather the availability of visas by operation of law," Mayorkas said. "Most of our benefits are obtainable within several months."