First online immigration application now available

Agency employees named the website for the system ELIS, or Electronic Immigration System, in honor of the immigrant welcoming station Ellis Island.

Agency employees named the website for the system ELIS, or Electronic Immigration System, in honor of the immigrant welcoming station Ellis Island. Rich Schultz/AP

New ‘ELIS’ website lets visitors request extensions to stay in the country, a step toward digitizing the largely paper-based immigration process.

A struggling, billion-dollar project to digitize immigration paperwork took a significant step forward on Tuesday by going live with its first online form. Certain visa-holders seeking to extend or change the status of their stays now can create Amazon-like accounts to securely file the application, Form I-539. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services effort, called Transformation, is intended to computerize the presently paper-based process of obtaining legal U.S. residency. Agency employees named the website for the system ELIS, or Electronic Immigration System, in honor of the immigrant welcoming station Ellis Island, USCIS officials told Nextgov.

Tuesday’s debut marks a highpoint for a project that has endured technical glitches, cost spikes and schedule slippages. Officials called the site a foundational release that went through many engineering hours to ensure future forms and features will function properly.

Filers will see immediate advantages, such as a less burdensome application with drop-down menus that are customized based on the user’s answers to previous questions, officials said. In addition, the foreign visitors will receive a response to their requests about 11 days faster, within 65 days rather than 76 days.

The agency intends to roll out more forms in stages, as part of a reworked strategy called “agile” development, USCIS officials said. The Obama administration has been pushing computer projects in this phased-in direction to avoid wasting time and money on constructing an entire system before testing whether it works. Agency caseworkers still will be shuffling paper files for interdepartmental processing and some administrative work. Within the next one or two releases -- each release takes at most six months to build -- the project will have computerized more of the information those adjudicators need, officials said on Monday.

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement, “USCIS employees believe in the transformation of our agency from a paper-based to an online environment. It is through their vision, unwavering commitment and hard work that we have reached this important milestone.”

A demonstration of the site at USCIS headquarters on Monday showed how ELIS walks visitors through the online application with “Tips” sidebars and detailed prompts. The account setup process requires that users enter personal information and answers to security questions to verify their identities. Subsequent screens instruct users how to fill out mandatory fields, upload supporting documents and pay application fees. Each time an applicant logs on to track responses or add a document, the user must either answer a security question, such as who is your favorite celebrity, or request a one-time password be sent to a cell phone or e-mail address.

If an applicant experiences technical difficulties, the user can call a toll-free number for customer service. Accounts will be deleted after 30 days of inactivity to protect the user’s personal information. For that reason, USCIS officials currently advise that only I-539 filers create an account.

In the future, the tool will offer collaboration accounts for government employees so that federal partners, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the State Department, can share cases, officials said. USCIS stressed that during design it incorporated feedback from those other agencies, case officers at processing service centers, and advocacy groups such as NAFSA, a professional organization for international educators. Agency officials plan later this summer or fall to hold listening sessions with student visa-holders after they have had a chance to try the tool. ELIS presently is available only in English.

USCIS, part of the Homeland Security Department, started Transformation in 2007 with the aim of using $536 million to digitize application processing by 2013. But the program’s most recent Government Accountability Office audit, released November 2011, reported a two-year delay and $292 million cost overrun -- the result of USCIS contracting for the work with IBM before pinning down the program’s full cost and system requirements. By October, a clearer timeline for form rollouts and project completion should emerge, USCIS officials said on Monday.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, requested reviews by the GAO and USCIS, following a February 2011 Nextgov article that stated the total cost of the project at the time was projected to jump from about $500 million to $2.2 billion.

Transformation’s most recent departmental review on May 14 garnered a 2 on a 5-point scale. The score, a one point drop since last year, reflected botched usability tests prior to a planned December 2011 launch that pushed back the project 14 weeks and increased costs by $29 million.

An internal fall 2011 presentation obtained by Nextgov identified 275 critical and high defects and indicated those numbers were rising. As of Nov. 27, 2011, more test cases had failed than passed: Of 1,447 total trials for the one form, 387 had flunked, 381 had succeeded, and the other cases were either blocked or awaiting testing.

DHS Chief Information Officer Richard Spires, in the May evaluation, stated, “Although progress has been made, challenges still remain. This program remains under the watchful leadership of both the USCIS and DHS CIO. The CIO assesses the USCIS Transformation Program as a Moderately High Risk investment.”

USCIS officials said they agree with the assessment and are working closely with the CIO’s office to ensure the long-term success of the program.

On May 16, Homeland Security officials signed a contract with IBM for $1.6 million to continue the project through March 2014.

In a statement on Monday, Spires said, “The USCIS Transformation effort is a large, complex undertaking involving changes to business processes, IT systems, and organizational culture. I commend USCIS for their fortitude and perseverance in reaching the milestone of the first release of USCIS ELIS. This new system provides a reliable platform on which USCIS can rapidly deploy new functionality to support enhanced immigration benefit processing."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.