When constructing a system for the currently undocumented to become documented, using existing definitions and processes will make it easier for everyone to understand what they are being asked to do. There already exists a process for individuals to migrate from not having a U.S. immigration status to having conditional lawful permanent residency and then eventually full lawful permanent residency. From there, pathways exist to citizenship based on personal circumstance. In the case of the currently undocumented, following something close to that same path – but with some tweaks to account for their not having certain eligibility features coming into the process – keeps us from re-inventing the wheel and strikes an appropriate balance of fairness with regard to those already in the system. Applicants for today’s U.S. immigration benefits already have difficulty with forms and filing procedures, but at least those forms and procedures are reasonably familiar. As we have seen with DACA applications, which mirror in many ways the process for Temporary Protected Status applications, the closer we stick to processes we already have, know, and understand, the better chance that both applicants and adjudicators will get it right.
That is not to say that there is no room for things that are new. The process of registering individuals for some kind of provisional or conditional Lawful Permanent Resident status would benefit immensely from technology that did not exist in, say, 1986. The ubiquity of the Internet and mobile devices makes it much easier to reach the affected audience for a new immigration program and to intake their personal information. In addition, we now have technology that allows us to leverage secure identities and the transfer of information. Simply being able to capture biometrics once and then match and re-verify them at each subsequent step in the process will save enormous time and effort for both applicants and government officials alike. Along the way, we can reduce the dependency on exchanges of paper filings between individuals and government that are often redundant, time-consuming, and error-inducing.
In today’s world, work is now largely organized around activities, not geographic locations. This reality is already recognized within the U.S. government as it pushes for enhanced telework initiatives for employees and – in some cases – moves to hotel-style offices, gets rid of desktop computers, and equips officials only with devices like tablets and smartphones. If we are careful to draw the line on inherently governmental activities for immigration reform initiatives very close to the actual decision making itself, we can maximize use of near off-the-shelf technology to assist government in flexing out to handle a surge in immigration applications.
When it comes to immigration reform, the goal should be to get as many people right with the system in the shortest possible timeframe and along the way shrink the haystack of the undocumented fast so that our immigration enforcement officials have an easier time of locating and securing the bad needles. A combination of existing procedures and new technology can streamline this process and shed light on how to move to things like e-filing, e-visas, and other forms of electronic processing for our immigration system as a whole. It is time to stop pushing paper around.
Petrucelli was acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) after previously serving as the agency’s deputy director for two years. He is currently the founder and executive chairman of iClearpath an online immigration startup. Prior to USCIS, Mr. Petrucelli was senior vice president for operations and chief of staff of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. As a U.S. State Department foreign service officer, he was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, the Bureau of Intelligence & Research in Washington, DC, and the U.S. Consulate General, Netherlands Antilles.