Technology is helping to modernize our immigration system. Here’s how.
By Vivian Graubard, a founding member of the U.S. Digital Service
In the fall of 1962, my grandparents, who were living in Cuba, made a decision that would forever change the course of my family’s history.
My grandmother packed her bags, boarded a plane for Miami, Florida, and landed in the United States of America on October 9, 1962 — the day before her 34th birthday. All she knew was that she would start a life with four small children, in a new country that she would grow to lovingly refer to as home.
Fate is a tricky creature; a few days later, the airports in Cuba were closed for commercial travel, making it nearly impossible to travel in and out of the country.
Twenty years later, my father’s parents made a similar choice to leave Colombia at the height of political crisis, and also found their new home in Miami.
My parents met there, and the rest of my life as I know it has been shaped by these events. It’s why I strongly believe in a modern and inclusive immigration system that allows for immigrants to pursue the American dream, harness their potential, and find opportunities to fully integrate into the fabric of our society.
My name is Vivian Graubard, and I’m a proud member of the U.S. Digital Service working on modernizing our country’s immigration service.
Every year, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) processes millions of immigration requests. This system is mostly paper-based, and consists of multiple forms and a long wait period.
An immigration application can cost over $400 and take six months to process. When someone mails in their forms, they end up in a USCIS facility called a service center. There, a series of contractors cross-reference the application with other systems by opening command line apps connected to mainframes, typing in information, printing out the results, and then stapling it in to the paper applications. The application folders grow and grow, and eventually land on the desk of a federal employee, called an adjudicator, who reviews the entire file and physically stamps their decision.
This poses an interesting service design question: how do we modernize a service that millions of people interact with, and make long-term, high-impact change at scale?
USCIS identified the challenge of this outdated system and began a five-year engagement with a technology vendor to tackle this issue. However, the 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. 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.
We believe that pairing a better technical base with user-centered design can play a big role in modernizing the immigration process.
So last July, U.S. Digital Service engineers, designers, and product managers joined the USCIS team as they worked to make this process better for users. USCIS had already changed course and made great progress; they were using an agile development approach, had a generally sound technical base including many open source components, and split development up among several small contractors instead of one massive one. Together, we:
1. Helped USCIS transition to the public cloud.
This reduces infrastructure costs and increases reliability and uptime.
2. Implemented application monitoring, including alerting to immediately respond to issues and better visibility into key metrics.
Before, executives would get emailed occasional reports with key stats on the system. Now they all have this dashboard loaded on their computers that updates in real-time.
3. Helped the teams hit deadlines and establish a regular release process.
In November 2014, USCIS tested a digital I-90 Form (the application to renew or replace your green card) for three days and received close to 2,000 applications. 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.
4. Did extensive user research.
We traveled to USCIS operations centers in Kansas City, Missouri and Lincoln, Nebraska to learn how adjudicators work, how they make decisions, and how they talk about what they do. We saw the tools they made for themselves and the workarounds they’d created for their own internal processes that were making it harder to make decisions on requests. These observations gave us enough data to create a concept for a design that we took back into the field and got feedback on. From this, we started a program of regular intervals of usability testing.
5. Re-imagined the immigrant experience,
With the help of teams at 18F(part of the General Services Administration or GSA) they launched myUSCIS, a platform 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. Ultimately, it will become the primary tool for USCIS’ customers to manage the majority of their online experience with USCIS.
USCIS changed the way they did business — and in the process, put their users at the center of their work.
I think often about the choices my family made, and how grateful I am for my grandparents’ bravery and determination.
But I know that modernizing the immigration system is more than fixing technology; it’s mending a bridge that makes our collective dreams a reality.
I believe that America deserves an immigration system that’s worthy of the people who come to our shores, seeking a better life for their families, contributing to our economy and our society. By keeping users at the heart of our work, fixing inefficient technology processes, and engaging in iterative and rapid design work, we can create change at the scale we want to see.
But we can’t do this alone. We need people who want to share their stories, use their skills to untangle these systems, and help make this country what I know it can be.
If that sounds like you, join us. We can’t wait to meet you!
Vivian Graubard is a founding member at the United States Digital Service.
Ready to get involved? Apply to join the U.S. Digital Service here: