Immigration In Cyberspace InfoPass At All 33 Districts
Infopass began in early 2004. It is an appointment system that is replacing walk-in public access at most of the districts where it is installed. This computer scheduling system is now at all 33 district offices, and it schedules appointments for almost every function of district offices via a link on the USCIS website.
I interviewed practitioners in Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Buffalo, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. where Infopass has been installed. All parties agree that Infopass has eliminated the traditional lines of people outside the district office, which is a great improvement. The practitioners differ, however, on how well they believe Infopass actually handles the immigration issues presented. In Los Angeles and especially Dallas, our affiliates give glowing reports of the improvements brought on by Infopass. Miami also reports being impressed with the new system. Smaller districts such as Buffalo were not experiencing much public demand, so that Infopass did not cause any radical changes. In New York, our affiliate has severe criticisms of the new system. In Baltimore and Washington, D.C. reviews are still mixed since the system just started in late August.
The Problem: Why Change Was Essential
People lined up to renew work permits, file applications (in districts that still allow in-person filing), obtain advance parole for emergency visits abroad, and inquire about delayed application adjudications. On top of normal pressures of public demand, security procedures including identification and metal detector screening slowed down the glacial pace of public entry to immigration buildings around the country in recent years.
The long waits in lines did not guarantee that you would be able to see an immigration officer that day, as each district cut off new inquiries at a daily quota. Even if people were able to approach the information counter, the officer might not have any desire or means to resolve the particular problem presented.
For example, while waiting in the morning line to enter the district office in Arlington, VA recently, I met a Salvadoran man with TPS. He had waited in line for the last two days, each time getting in line at 3 a.m. He was now on his third attempt to obtain a travel document. His mother was hospitalized in El Salvador and he wanted to obtain advance parole to travel immediately. He had been able to reach the information counter on the second day, only to be told that the translation of the medical document he supplied from El Salvador would have to be notarized.
This type of suffering was normal at most large district offices. It resembled the government agencies of many of the countries that the immigrants come from. U.S. citizens, however, were usually shocked discovering the utter lack of service, efficiency, and courtesy that permeated the agency. Then Infopass was born.
How Infopass Works
The system directs the user into the possible appointment scheduling for the all 33 districts now using it. A preliminary page tells the person to select English, or one of eleven other languages, for the scheduling instructions. The system encourages people to use the website to check case status online without need for an appointment, and advertises the availability of immigration forms and e-filing (I-90 and I-765) through the website.
Infopass also directs the user to consult the customer service number (800-375-5283) for more information. This number is widely regarded as time-consuming and useless by practitioners. Contract employees staff the line, and the knowledge of immigration is elementary, at best. However, address changes for service centers are efficiently reported through the customer service line, since the employees reliably record the new address information in the case status information by computer.
If an appointment is then requested, the zip code for the client's home address must be entered. Then the appointment seeker is asked to choose a type of appointment from a question about a case, a stamp in a passport after residency approval, a work permit upon to filing for adjustment after 90 days have passed, or filing an application to replace an alien card. With input of first, middle and last name, date of birth, zip code and phone number, a choice of appointment slots open within the next few weeks or days will be offered.
If appointments are used up for the next scheduling period in the particular district, the person is advised to try back later. No file numbers are requested by the system. Each district has a mix of daily appointment types available. Many districts schedule appointments every 15 minutes, while others allot 30 minutes per appointment. In the Dallas system, a separate track for the Dallas Area Rapid Adjustment (DORA), which is used to schedule adjustment filings and interviews through Infopass.
Applicants are then directed to appear at the district office with identification and to take a copy of the Infopass appointment. Districts differ on how much access they will allow to accompanying persons, including family members and translators. Each district has its own policy on whether emergency walk-in inquiries will still be allowed after Infopass is installed, but such walk-ins are generally discouraged. In efficient districts, the DHS employee is on hand to help people either obtain an Infopass appointment or screen the person for a possible walk-in emergency.
Attorney and cashier access is also by Infopass appointment in many of the districts where the system has been installed. Some districts, such as Arlington, have stated that they will keep separate attorney walk-in hours and cashier hours for immigration court cases.
Reports from Affiliates
Speedier adjustment adjudication and elimination of chaotic and inefficient public lines at the district are two very visible results of the new systems in Dallas.
The Infopass system for Dallas schedules a mix of appointments over an allotted time period for every 30 minutes, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Each week, a new day is opened for new appointments. Thus, if the appointment seeker is frustrated by unavailable appointments one day, he or she need only try back early the next morning to obtain an appointment.
There are two tracks for appointments in Dallas. One set is only for the purpose of filing and review of adjustment applications under the DORA program. The other track schedules all the case inquiries, work permits and normal fare of Infopass appointments. Rosario reports that the district made a huge effort to educate the immigrant public about the system and continues to provide for emergency walk-in access where needed.
The allowance of in-person adjustment filing by appointment as an alternative to mail-in filing is an important part of the rapid improvement of adjustment adjudication. Typical adjustment cases are usually adjudicated in five to six months under the new system, whereas the same cases languished for three years under the old system. Some cases have reached final adjudication in three months. The DORA system has been piloted only at Dallas thus far, and is not part of Infopass in the other districts.
In Los Angeles, Loc Nguyen, Director of Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Department, is pleased with Infopass in his district. Problems that the community organizations raised were recently addressed. Since L.A.'s immigration office has had horrible all-night lines for public access for many years, the elimination of those lines is an improvement.
Mr. Nguyen still sees pros and cons with the system, however. One nagging problem has occurred where the zip code-based system insists on scheduling a person in the office closest to their residence, even when the file might reside in another district. Some sub-offices lack authority to perform certain functions, such as issue employment authorization documents, yet people are scheduled at those offices.
Infopass does not take care of existing confusion within the INS/DHS offices that existed before the system's installation. Much confusion still exists over what can be filed in-person at the district office, what must go by mail to the district or regional office, and whether the district has authority to do many things that it has done in the past. Since directions on the Internet site for USCIS are not always correct on what may be filed where, and each district has local policies on what it will allow to be filed in person, the confusion is understandable. Districts also now lack discretion to perform many functions that they did in the past.
For example, persons with lost naturalization certificates used to be able to obtain a letter from the L.A. district stating that the individual was a citizen but was awaiting replacement of their naturalization document. Now, the district cannot issue such a letter, and the person must wait a very long time before the National Records Center responds with a duplicate naturalization document.
In L.A., as in all districts our affiliates reported from, no immigration file is retrieved before the person appears before an officer for the scheduled appointment. Thus, persons who are inquiring about an existing case are merely punched by case number into the computer and are told what the computer says. This is not always helpful, since anyone with access to a computer can also perform this function, and only the barest information on the case is provided. File retrieval is needed to solve problems and Infopass does not provide for it.
Since Loc Nguyen meets frequently with the district officials, he has been able to raise the problems to them. Some have been addressed, such as the replacement of contract security guards with immigration guards at the district entry lobby. Other changes to the computer system may or may not be possible, such as allowing someone to schedule outside the district of their residential zip code. In L.A., a public computer kiosk allows people to schedule an appointment on-site at the district, and an immigration officer is available to handle emergency cases that may still require walk-in access.
In general, Mr. Nguyen finds the system to be better organized and more helpful that the former chaotic lines. Although appointments sometimes run out for the next two-week period, new ones will appear when one checks back within a day or two. He finds that local officials have made a huge effort to educate the public about the system and do what they can to make it work.
On the opposite end of the opinion spectrum is our affiliate in New York, where Norma Rios at Catholic Charities reports that Infopass merely makes people feel better because it gives them an appointment. She has not seen one positive result of the new system, which started in New York in July 2004. While the lines outside immigration have been eliminated, she has found that the officer's failure to retrieve files, coupled with misinformation, actually misleads many clients. Many district employees are recent hires in New York and some have limited knowledge, she reports.
One of Ms. Rios' clients recently had entered without documents. She had been advised by Ms. Rios that she could not adjust in the United States and would need to consular process. The individual went to her Infopass appointment and was told to file for adjustment. Another client, an asylee, later applied for adjustment through his U.S. citizen spouse. He made an Infopass appointment to check on the status of his application. He was told mistakenly that there was no adjustment on file.
Another client of Ms. Rios' went to an Infopass appointment to do a case inquiry on an adjustment interview that had taken place more than a year before, with no adjudication. At the Infopass appointment, the officer checked case status online' and told the applicant his application was pending. That is, the officer had no file, did not retrieve one, and had no idea why there was no decision a year after the interview.
The elimination of walk-in access in New York created problems, such as the inability of people without Infopass appointments but legitimate reasons to be in the building to enter. Among these persons were the potential clients of the local pro-bono network, who usually meet with an intake volunteer in the building. These persons were no longer allowed in the building without an Infopass appointment. A coalition liaison person from the district did act on the problem and promised imminent resolution, however. All filings in the New York district are still done by mail, and not by Infopass appointment. Thus, no impact has occurred on the long wait for adjustment interviews.
In Miami, Randy McGrorty at Catholic Charities reports that overall, he is impressed with the Infopass system. The district worked hard on public education before establishing the system, and computer kiosks were available in the lobby, the lines were eliminated, and appointments were obtainable within two weeks in most cases. Emergency walk-in access was still possible after Infopass began.
In Buffalo, Marta Golab at Catholic Charities reports that her district never had long lines or a chaotic atmosphere. Thus, Infopass has had no immediate visible effect on the operations there. The district did make an effort to educate the public on the new scheduling system, and provides lists of local libraries with computer access to the public.
In Baltimore and Arlington, Infopass has become the exclusive method of entering the district office at this time. Arlington has long suffered with some of the worst lines. Baltimore has always been well organized and done the best possible with frequent changes in law and procedure. Both offices have made efforts to educate practitioners about Infopass, and it remains to be seen how much the new system will improve their operations.
Since many district officials are very motivated to succeed with Infopass, they are receptive to comments on how to improve the system. Practitioners should offer frequent feedback in their districts so that the system can be adjusted to serve immigrants as well as possible.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.