Feds at Work: Made immigration resources more accessible and user-friendly

A virtual assistant can answer 90 percent of questions successfully

Millions of people interact with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website and staff every year, seeking citizenship, permanent residency, refugee status, help getting a relative into the country and other assistance.

The process can be intimidating.

Individuals have to fill out detailed forms and meet very specific legal requirements, often while overcoming language barriers.

Mariela Melero and her customer service team at the immigration agency have been changing this dynamic, helping individuals get assistance faster and easier, and in ways tailored to their educational, cultural and linguistic needs.

Mariela Melero (Photo by Aaron Clamage)

She is “a visionary” who has changed the agency’s strategy from simply providing telephone or website information to the public to giving more accessible and understandable service, said Kathleen Stanley, chief of the agency’s Office of Transformation Coordination.

“We need to provide information to the public in the way the public understands it,” she said. “Mariela always thinks about the customer first.”

Central to Melero’s work is an online portal called myUSCIS, a one-stop shop for immigrant information. It includes a help center with up-to-date information on the application process, tools to prepare for naturalization, and resources to find citizenship preparation classes and doctors in communities.

“More products are now available in other languages, but with English subtitles, so that you are actually helping people learn English.” ~ Eric Hysen, Department of Homeland Security

Working with an innovation and design firm to redesign online resources, Melero and her team relied on customers’ perceptions of the agency and what was important to them.

“Mariela worked with this organization to change the look and feel of our website and to get much better tools to our customers,” Stanley said.

Visitors to the site grew exponentially in 2015, from 209 distinct users that January to more than 182,000 in December — and got more than 1.8 million visits that year.

An innovative component is a virtual assistant that helps nearly 5,000 unique users daily to get questions answered, delivering the information in plain English. Since the December launch of “Emma,” its use has increased significantly.

Emma answers close to 500,000 questions a month, on average,with a success rate of nearly 90 percent. Melero also oversaw the creation of a Spanish-speaking version that went live in June.

“More products are now available in other languages, but with English subtitles, so that you are actually helping people learn English,” said Eric Hysen, director of digital services at the Department of Homeland Security.

Melero and her team also upgraded a site that allows individuals to track their applications and provides estimates of how long the agency will take to process an application or petition. The “Case Status Online” has 1.3 million distinct users visit monthly, on average. Volume exceeds 50 million visits annually, making it one of the most highly trafficked government sites.

“I am a refugee and a product of the system. For a little girl from Cuba to run the Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate on behalf of the largest immigration system in the world, I just pinch myself because I can’t believe it really.”~ Mariela Melero, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Although developing online content is a priority, Melero also realizes some customers will always prefer phone contact, her colleagues said. Callers used to be put on hold for an average of 47 minutes during peak hours. Now, a bilingual call center offers a call-back feature so they don’t have to wait.

Because Melero often talks to customers and has good connections in the community representing the people who use the tools, “she has a great sense of what is needed,” said Lori Scialabba, deputy director of USCIS. “The tools that they developed continue to get high marks.”

Better customer service benefits the agency as well as those seeking assistance by increasing efficiency, said Mark Schwartz, chief information officer at USCIS. Streamlined, easy-to-use tools result in “better applications,” he said.

Melero is the daughter of Cuban parents who sought refuge in Puerto Rico when she was 5. She recalls when she and her sister helped their parents study for the U.S. citizenship examination, and how important it was to them.

“I am a refugee and a product of the system,” Melero said. “For a little girl from Cuba to run the Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate on behalf of the largest immigration system in the world, I just pinch myself because I can’t believe it really.”

Mariela Melero and the Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate are finalists for a 2016 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, or Sammies. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service honors federal employees whose remarkable accomplishments make our government and our nation stronger. For the second time, we will also present the annual “People’s Choice” award. Please vote for the person or team you find most inspiring. (Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on September 9, 2016.)