USDS takes on antiquated immigration services

Since last July, before it had even publicly launched as the White House's technical SWAT team, USDS has worked with USCIS to modernize the long, inefficient and grueling immigration process.

The White House’s technical SWAT team has been working to salvage a project to modernize how immigrants apply for green cards.

Since before it launched last summer, U.S. Digital Service has been trying to digitize a long, inefficient and grueling paper application that isn’t much different from what was used during the immigration boom of the early 1900s.

The USDS joined the effort at the behest of the Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which had struggled to finish the job on its own. Vivian Graubard, a founding member of USDS and daughter of immigrant parents, said USCIS’ five-year Electronic Immigration System project “ran into the kinds of problems that IT projects in government too often face.”

“The scope of the project was too large and the timelines too long,” Graubard wrote in a White House blog post Thursday. “It used a traditional waterfall methodology, which meant that the first product releases happened years after the project began; and the agency was heavily reliant on specific vendors. Years into the process, when the project was finally due to deliver results, it fell short of expectations.”


The Government Accountability Office teed off on the project in February as part of its biennial high risk list, saying “it is unclear whether the department is positioned to successfully deliver” on its goal to transition “from a fragmented, paper-based filing environment to a consolidated, paperless environment using electronic case management tools.” Also, in a few years time, GAO found, the project’s cost has increased by half-a-billion dollars.

USCIS changed some of its developmental approaches for ELIS and saw progress, the USDS founding member said. With the help of USDS, the service was even more successful in moving USCIS to the cloud, revamping some research and testing processes, and adding application monitoring to the system.

“In November 2014, USCIS tested a digital I-90 Form for three days — the application to renew or replace your green card — and received close to 2,000 applications,” Graubard wrote. “The team collected customer feedback and data about the process, and in March 2015, USCIS hard launched the I-90, allowing for full electronic filing. So far, it’s seen over 40,000 applications. They’re now releasing improvements to the software every week, and hopefully even more frequently in the future.”

Likewise, USDS performed extensive user research on USCIS adjudicators around the country and, with the help of the General Services Administration’s 18F, “reimagined the immigrant experience, end-to-end.” While most of the latter work fell to 18F and USCIS, Graubard said the collaboration resulted in a new tool, called myUSCIS, that “allows users to easily access information about the immigration process and find immigration options for which they may qualify.”

“Co-created and co-designed with USCIS’ customers, myUSCIS is a major paradigm shift in how the government designs and builds digital services for its customers,” she wrote. “Ultimately, it will become the primary tool for USCIS’ customers to manage the majority of their online experience with USCIS.”

Billy Mitchell

Written by Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of Scoop News Group's editorial brands. He oversees operations, strategy and growth of SNG's award-winning tech publications, FedScoop, StateScoop, CyberScoop, EdScoop and DefenseScoop. After earning his degree at Virginia Tech and winning the school's Excellence in Print Journalism award, Billy received his master's degree from New York University in magazine writing.

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