The Immigration Forms Industry: A Look Back On 22 Years
ILW.COM graciously invited me to write this article about the history of the immigration forms market based upon my experiences over the past 22 years. Hopefully some of you will read it and gain a better understanding of the immigration forms industry and how we got to where we are today.
My involvement with immigration software dates back to more than twenty years. In 1982, leveraging my years of experience in developing large scale Unix office automation and database applications, and my desire to explore new ways to apply technology in solving common problems, I developed the first immigration forms application. It was designed to improve the way immigration attorneys created immigration forms and managed their office. That year, Certified Software was founded by me, Dave Wertzberger, and immigration attorney Jim Kelly.
Jim first approached me with a CP/M based program that maintained some information related to Jim's practice and clients. CP/M was one of the first 8-bit operating systems for personal computers before Microsoft developed MS-DOS. Jim wanted to improve his program and add more features. The application was then a basic client tracking program. I was confident that I could make a better version of the program. I was also confident that I could collect more information related to the client. I remember telling Jim that I could make his program better by taking in more client data into the computer program's database, merging that data onto the INS forms and even printing the forms on a printer. I have always felt that Jim did not believe me at the time.
In retrospect Jim's unspoken concern was warranted actually. I am the first to admit that creating the program was not an easy task. Jim was ecstatic when I delivered a working product that did everything I had claimed and more. It took me awhile to come up with a scheme for aligning the forms and for supporting all the different dot matrix printers available at that time.
After a successful six months in Jim's office, we decided to place a commercial version of the same application on the market in 1983. The software was known simply as Immigrant. It was, of course, a DOS based software application. Immigrant was a questionnaire based program that allowed the attorney to enter client data based on case type, and then print the client data directly to the government forms. One of the limitations of Immigrant was that users had to ensure the form was aligned properly in the printer or else the data would not print correctly onto the form.
The method of entering data into the computer and then printing it onto the various forms was revolutionary, since at the time, attorneys had to rely on a typewriter to enter data directly onto the forms. With the release of Immigrant, the company had achieved its objective to bring the best and most cutting edge product to its customers. This objective has since then been incorporated into the mission statement of my company today.
Obviously, there was no existing market for us to go into, we had to create our own market. We did this with the traditional door-to-door salesman approach. Dave Wertzberger was the guy that spent most of his time on the road visiting immigration law offices. It was a difficult period, because sales were hard and slow. Immigration attorneys were reluctant to give up their typewriters. However, there was a continual gradual process of people realizing the benefits of storing their customers information on their computer for future changes and additional forms.
Somewhere around 1985, the real fun began with the introduction of affordable laser printers. The laser printer introduced a host of new problems. For example, the INS required each page of the G-325 to be printed on the exact same color of paper as the official government form. Failure to do so resulted in the INS rejecting the application. I can remember receiving a great number of technical support calls from our customers on this issue. Most could not understand why the government accepted laser generated forms, but rejected them if they were not on the correct color paper. This resulted in many calls to the main INS office for assistance in getting the forms accepted by the local office that had rejected them.
Again with this step forward, we found that most of our customers did not take to laser printers easily. The multi-colored paper, the flipping of pages to be printed, and occasional rejections at the local INS office made laser printers a significant challenge for our customers and us. Moreover, each laser printer manufacturer had different printing control codes for their printers, so we had to handle many different manufacturer's printers. We eventually tried to ease this problem by suggesting the use of HP printers to all our users.
In late 1980's, I was busy improving upon Immigrant. A newer, still DOS based product; Immigrant II, was placed on the market by our company. The new release supported more robust questionnaires and provided greater laser printing capabilities, along with a host of additional features and enhancements.
Throughout the 1980's Certified Software was not the only immigration forms software provider. We saw many competitors enter and exit the market. I liked to call them the "here today, gone tomorrow" guys. Whatever you call them, these unstable companies created headaches for us as many users wanted an assurance that our company would not crash and burn as the others had. In an effort to reassure our customers, we provided a licensing agreement that stated that if we went out of business they would receive the source code for our product. We also provided our source code to an independent third party (attorney) for this purpose. In those days, such practices became a standard. Customers were understandably afraid of getting burned, because they might have gone with another company and that company would soon disappear. Even today, we still have customers who are concerned about a company not being around tomorrow. Actually, it's rather disheartening that the companies entering the market today aren't held to this same standard, but as we all know, these are different times.
During this period, while the business was still growing, I worked at Apple computer and other prominent computer companies in Silicon Valley. My primary responsibility while at Apple was to manage a group that developed new strategic systems for Fortune 500 companies including American Airlines, American Express, TRW, Northwest Airlines, Motorola, and Texas Instruments. While this was certainly an exciting period in my life, immigration software was still my business, and when the opportunity and timing was right, I gladly left Apple to run Immigrant Software full time.
With more and more DOS based programs fading away, (and with the departure of Dave Wertzberger), Jim Kelly and I formed Immigrant Software Corporation (ISC) in 1990. This also marked the launch of the first Windows based immigration forms solution. It was at least a couple years later before any of our competitors offered a Windows based product. I am aware of at least one or two competitors who even today, are still DOS based. At this point, I cannot quite understand why someone would still want to use a DOS based solution for anything… but that's just me.
ISC's Windows based product was called Immigrant Professional, which many called ImmPro or ImPro. To this day, people know the name ImPro. Often when we are at AILA functions, people come to our exhibitor booths and ask us if we are the ImPro people. Many have come to know us better by our product name rather than our company name.
During the 1990's ISC partnered with Federal Publications. This partnership was a great business opportunity for both entities. A joint product known as IrisPro was offered to customers and contained a combined solution that included both a research tool and a forms package.
Federal Publications was later purchased by West Publishing who inherited the IrisPro product. Since West had its own immigration forms program (ImmForms), some customers, especially the IrisPro users, became confused between of the two immigration forms products. While West was contractually obligated to sell IrisPro, they were more focused on selling their own immigration forms program, and research tools.
ISC reached another milestone during the period of 1999-2000 by introducing the concept of the next generation forms products, consisting of a sophisticated case management system coupled with an online component. After this period, many new competitors came on the scene boasting about their web-based products. Most of them simply took our concepts/ideas and made them web-based. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I guess I should be flattered. But, I still think they are missing the boat. I have been listening to my customers for over 20 years now. I know my customer's concerns, and understand what they want from a software solution. In the long run, I think the immigration community will realize that we offer very reasonably priced products with unique, superior functionality.
The demands of keeping pace with constant advances in technology which can be used to improve immigration software products presents a challenge to any immigration software provider, myself included. Partnering with a software development company is one option which can enhance a company's ability to bring products to market quickly and efficiently. After having had previous unsuccessful experiences with third party development teams, I'm happy to report that I've recently partnered with a leading software development company that allows us to bring products to the market expediently and meets our exacting standards of excellence.
I am still actively involved in managing the day-to-day operations of ISC, especially the company's direction and customer support. I love communicating with our customers and listening to their needs. This only aids us in building a better product for our customers. I value our customers' business and suggestions highly. We also are known for providing superb customer support and are continuously complemented on our quality customer support. Many of our customers have been with us, and remained loyal, since the early 1980's. How could I not give them the best customer support possible?
Our new product line includes Case Management Gold which is a revolutionary product (patent pending) that allows an attorney to manage his clients and staff by creating their own custom case flow and letting the software do the rest. The much anticipated Immigrant Online was demonstrated for the first time at the AILA conference in Philadelphia as well. In our online world, data resides in the law firm and the online integrates with the core product: the forms or case management programs. Our products are web-enabled, not web-based. Why would you want a completely web-based product when 90% of the work is done in your office from your desktop? Why do all that pointing and clicking while being limited by bandwidth and an Internet browser? It just didn't make any sense to me. I'm sure that we will see more vendors adopting this style in the near future.
I continue to develop new ideas and approaches that will make immigration lawyers' jobs easier. I am actively working with the various government agencies to create an online filing standard. I first contacted the government in 1994-1995 regarding online filing and have been in continual contact with them since that time. As you know the government moves slow. I think we will see online filing in the future, but I am not sure when it will actually be a real option.
I think we have a unique product line. If I had to summarize what my customers want, I would have to say they want the power to practice law their way, not how some other attorney does it. The problem with many of the competitors' products is that you are forced to use their templates and processes. We, on the other hand, give our customers the power to create their own templates, processes and methods. This is a very big difference.
The increase in productivity for law offices has gone up incrementally over these years due primarily to automation in their data processing. By storing client information in a database and being able to re-use that data for additional forms without having to re-type the data was a significant step. I also believe that this approach has allowed the attorney to take more of a management role and either process the same number of cases with fewer paralegals or manage a significant number of new cases by adding paralegals.
The past 22 years has been a challenging and demanding time, yet overall, exciting. We have seen the technology change from typewriters to web based; from typing on INS standard forms to the INS now taking information in on their web site. We now need to see the INS and DOL start cooperating with third party vendors and providing mechanisms for us to input client data directly from our programs into the INS and get status back. This will truly be a major step for the INS and for immigration attorneys.
Looking back, I am proud to have contributed to improving the way attorneys practice law and provide services to their clients. I am also a bit awestruck at the progress we have made. We moved forward as a group, from typewriters, to computer base printing on government forms, to laser printing, to Windows based programs, and now to sophisticated case management programs that run your office, and Internet sharing of data, and e-filing. I look forward to sharing the innovations we have lined up for the next generation of products.
Thank you for taking this trip down memory lane with me and I encourage you to share your thoughts and comments.
About The Author
Ken Ray is currently serving as Chief Executive Officer of Immigrant Software Corporation, located in Reno, Nevada. Ken may be best known as the person who created Immigrant Professional (ImPro), the most widely known and used immigration software on the market today. Ken is also known as the father of immigration forms processing. For more information about Ken Ray or Immigrant Software, visit www.immigrantsofware.com. You can email Ken directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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