USCIS replaces an overloaded online system with an overloaded phone system
A new appointment system launched by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is leading to unnecessary complications, immigration attorneys told the Web Integrity Project. Rolled out rapidly after a pilot program launched in the fall of 2018, the Information Services Modernization Program, or “InfoMod”, threatens to sever a long-standing line of communication with agency officers without offering an efficient replacement.
InfoMod was designed as the successor of the longstanding online appointment portal known as InfoPass, which had been in service since 2004.
InfoPass was a fairly straightforward online scheduling system that allowed people involved in the often complex immigration process — those seeking residency and other immigration benefits or, often, the attorneys representing them — to reserve in-person appointments directly with their local offices. Such appointments allowed stakeholders to speak, in many cases, directly with the officers handling their cases, and clear up problems before they led to delays and more serious consequences. Direct communication was sometimes vital to moving a case forward when complications arose and deadlines loomed, attorneys told WIP.
“When there was a clear misapplication of law … that was our way to talk to somebody relatively quickly and try to resolve an issue. And that’s gone,” says Tracie Klinke, an immigration attorney in Marrieta, GA.
InfoMod replaces the InfoPass online portal with a telephone-based screening system. Rather than making an appointment directly, users now must explain their problem to a USCIS operator over the phone, who determines if their particular issue warrants an in-person appointment or not. The problem, says Klinke and others, is that the criteria used by USCIS operators to grant appointments are far too narrow.
USCIS has portrayed InfoMod as an attempt to address persistent backlogs in the InfoPass system. Some users scheduled in-person appointments to obtain routine status updates, or general process information, which meant fewer available slots for truly urgent or complex issues.
“Based on surveys and other data, USCIS determined that most people who made in-person information service appointments through InfoPass could have received the same information by calling the USCIS Contact Center or checking the USCIS website,” the agency wrote in a statement announcing the expansion of InfoMod in October of 2018.
By all accounts, the overuse of InfoPass for minor issues was a problem, and the backlog was real.
“Attorneys were staying up until midnight or later to see when new appointments would open up,” says Klinke.
But there is little evidence that that core problem — a strained system — has been alleviated by InfoMod. What was an overloaded online system is now an overloaded phone system. All the attorneys WIP spoke with reported extremely long hold times. Klinke says she has spent as much as five hours waiting to speak to someone who can address her issue.
Having an attorney spend so much time on the phone — and typically billing by the hour — can run up costs for applicants dramatically, Klinke noted. Immigrants who aren’t represented by attorneys, which amounts to the majority, may be simply unable to devote that much of their day to sitting on hold.
InfoMod provides an alternative to those hold times whereby callers can request a return call when an operator is available. But in an immigration system with offices spanning multiple time zones, that has its complications as well. USCIS is supposed to return calls within 72 hours, which already complicates urgent requests. Callbacks can originate from any USCIS office across the 50 states and so, depending on where the callback originates, it might come outside of regular office hours. Attorneys who spoke with WIP said they had received calls as late as 10:00 pm, when they’re likely to be away from their offices and without their clients’ files.
Those lengthy delays can be devastating for time sensitive requests, says Adam Greenberg, an immigration attorney in Pittsburgh, PA. While it took persistence to obtain an appointment online under the old system, you could ultimately count on speaking to an actual immigration officer who was empowered to make decisions. Now it can take days simply to speak to someone with the authority to help with your issue; those operating the phone lines don’t possess that authority.
“They’ll still give you an in-person appointment, they’re still doing that, but only in cases when they think the in-person appointment is necessary,” says Greeberg. If you want a callback from a higher level officer, “you might get someone, you might not get someone, and you can sometimes wait hours or days.”
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, the nation’s largest association of immigration attorneys, raised concerns about InfoMod in a letter to USCIS in January of this year. At the time, the new system was in a pilot stage but was poised for a rapid expansion. The organization raised many of the same concerns that attorneys who spoke to WIP relayed, even as it acknowledged the problems with InfoPass.
“The stakeholder has limited control over scheduling the appointment and can be refused an appointment by the USCIS representative … the new system has restricted access to USCIS for those who might genuinely need it,” the letter said.
Officials with AILA — which often acts as a clearinghouse for feedback to USCIS — told WIP this week that the problems reported in their January letter persist, and the agency has not been willing to address the complaints in meaningful ways.
“Right now, I think one of our biggest concerns is that we haven’t been able to engage as robustly as we have in the past,” says Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, Director of Government Relations at AILA.
A persistent issue is a lack of clarity from the agency on exactly what circumstances warrant an in-person appointment, added Paul Stern, a policy associate at AILA.
“We’re well above a year after the first local USCIS office rolled out the InfoMod program, and USCIS has still not publicly released the criteria that would qualify an issue for a local appointment, and I do think that is a concern among our members,” Stern says.
USCIS spokesperson Maria Elena Upson declined to arrange an interview with anyone at the agency to discuss InfoMod, and did not respond to a list of emailed questions. She referred WIP to a press release.
One of the strangest difficulties users report is a kind of Catch-22 concerning legal representation. If an attorney is representing a new client, the agency may not have on file the paperwork — known as a form G-28 — that would allow agency staff to discuss an immigrant’s case. Under the old system, an attorney who had an urgent need related to a new client could obtain an InfoPass appointment, and then easily provide their G-28 in person. But with InfoMod, attorneys are stuck at an impasse, says Ari Sauer, an attorney based in Memphis. They can’t get an appointment without a G-28, and there’s no way to quickly submit a G-28 without an appointment, so there’s no way to elevate a problem with a given case.
“The officer on the phone won’t talk to them because there’s no record of them being the attorney for the person,” Sauer says.
There’s another seemingly small detail that could create an additional problem, especially for those navigating the system without a lawyer: USCIS callbacks come from restricted numbers. There’s no way to tell whether the call is a critically important one from USCIS or a robocall selling mortgage refinancing. Perhaps most frustratingly, attorneys say, if you miss that all-important call from USCIS, you’ve lost your chance. USCIS will often not call again. You need to restart the process all over again.
Sauer says there were plenty of improvements to be made to InfoPass. But its replacement leaves a lot to be desired.
“It’s hard to come up with a perfect system, and I appreciate that,” Sauer says. “But at the same time, this is definitely a throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater situation.”