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USCIS project critical first step in modernizing immigration system

Jun. 10, 2012 - 03:21PM   |  
By JAMES W. ZIGLAR   |   Comments

The conventional wisdom and, in large part, the reality, is that Washington is gridlocked on immigration policy and generally inept in its management of the immigration system. But while politicians dither and ignore the fact that our immigration laws are hopelessly dysfunctional and out of date, the leadership of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the men and women who work behind the scenes there, have worked to improve the efficiency of the system and the security of our nation.

With little fanfare, USCIS on May 22 rolled out the first phase of a massive project to harness 21st century technologies in managing our overly complex immigration system.

The first phase of this new online processing system, known as USCIS ELIS (a clever harkening back to the nation’s Ellis Island history), will allow certain immigrants and visitors whose legal presence in the United States already is established to apply online for status adjustments, receive notices and inform USCIS regarding changes of address, marital status and other data important to our security interest in knowing their whereabouts and status.

Improved fraud detection and thwarting of criminal activity are among the most important goals of USCIS ELIS. The platform on which this system is being built was conceived during the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration embraced and improved this initiative and has helped turn this concept into reality.

The launch of USCIS ELIS undoubtedly will draw little public attention, particularly in an era when it is more popular to excoriate the government for its perceived failures than to recognize the accomplishments that have occurred with enforcement at the borders and within the country, as well as with the strengthening of processes within Department of Homeland Security agencies that deal with immigration. And that’s OK, because the public good is still being served without the fanfare.

But it is worth noting why this initiative is so important.

For decades, the immigration processing system has been paper-based, and it has continued as such long after electronic records became the standard. This archaic system has caused untold harm to honest and well-meaning individuals through long delays, lost applications and high fees. It also has been a discouraging factor for many talented immigrants who would prefer to come to the U.S. rather than migrate elsewhere in search of economic opportunity and personal fulfillment. This situation is cause for concern, as other nations increasingly compete for the talent that can keep their economies vibrant in an ever more globalized world.

This antiquated system also has contributed to security gaps and lapses because of the difficulty in gathering, retrieving and disseminating real-time information. One indication of the magnitude of the paper churned through the system: Applications received by USCIS each day would create a pile of paper almost twice as high as the Statue of Liberty. There can be little mystery as to why our immigration civil servants have long struggled to keep up with the volume of work imposed on them by this inefficient system.

The USCIS announcement is only the first step in modernizing our immigration system, but it is a critical step in enhancing national security, reducing costs and building the agency’s capacity to deal with changes in immigration law that inevitably will occur when our policymakers finally realize that deporting 11 million people is impractical, politically and economically unacceptable, and inconsistent with the values of most Americans.

Bipartisanship and consistency in policy from administration to administration may not be in vogue, but the Bush administration should be commended for conceiving the USCIS transformation, and the Obama administration for its leadership in bringing this system to fruition.

James W. Ziglar served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the George W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, independent think tank in Washington that studies U.S. and international immigration policy and trends.

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