Immigrating to the US was hard, but tech will make it easier

Social security and permanent resident card

When I arrived in the US just after New Year's Day in 1999, I didn't think I would stay. I came here for school and fully expected to return to Malaysia after I was done. Except I didn't. I met my future husband, found new friends, stumbled onto an exciting career and I knew, deep in my heart, that there was no way I could leave. So I began the long and arduous process of making this country my home. Finally, on February 22nd, 2010, I became a citizen of the United States. The entire process cost me hundreds of dollars, required multiple trips to the immigration office and had me filling out lots and lots of forms. I kept thinking the entire time that there had to be an easier way. It turns out the US government thinks so too.

Last week, the White House released a report entitled "Modernizing and Streamlining our Legal Immigration System for the 21st Century" after a month-long assessment on how current visa applications work. In it, the White House outlined the problems in the existing immigration system and offered a series of recommendations and guidelines on how to improve the process going forward. Not only were the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department involved, but also the White House called on the US Digital Service team -- which was created late last year to salvage -- to bring the entire process to the electronic age.

Indeed, it's already started. Earlier this year, the government launched myUSCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services), an online platform that sees you through the immigration process easier and faster than ever before. It provides helpful information about what steps you need to take and offers different ways to apply depending on your qualifications. The idea here is that with the help of US Digital Service, myUSCIS will eventually be the primary portal where visa applicants and would-be immigrants can manage their entire online application process, from start to finish. Some changes have already taken place. For example, Form I-90 -- the application to renew your green card -- can now be filed fully electronically. As of May of this year, over 40,000 people have filed Form I-90 this way.


A small sampling of the correspondence I received during my immigration process

But it's not just about reducing paperwork. Last week's White House report focused on improving and streamlining the process as a whole, thus reducing complexity and making it more user-friendly. For example, applicants currently have to pay fees several times -- there's a separate fee for the initial visa application and for the green card itself (also called the USCIS Immigrant Fee). Instead of paying them separately, the White House proposes that applicants be able to pay all of it at once: "Paying multiple fees should be as simple as buying multiple items in an online shopping cart. Separating the fees for different processes should happen entirely on the back end."

Additionally, according to the study, many immigration documents change hands no fewer than six times among different offices, adding unnecessary complexity. Going forward, the White House hopes to cut down redundancy by implementing a better back-end technology and creating a "cross-agency digital services team" so that users no longer need to shuttle documents back and forth. There are plenty more recommendations in the report. They include suggestions for a "Known Employer" program to expedite certain immigrant worker applications, improved opportunities for foreign investors and the simplification of humanitarian relief efforts.

When I was first looking to apply for a green card (which I had to get before becoming a citizen), I was overwhelmed by the number of different steps involved, particularly because of all the forms and required documentation. I had to fill them out by hand and make sure to address them to the appropriate USCIS office (there are different filing addresses depending on which state you live in and depending on which form you're sending). Most of my friends who did this hired an immigration lawyer to help them. I didn't have the money for an attorney, so I just did all of it myself, looking for advice from books and websites and keeping meticulous notes (I have two filing boxes full of correspondence and documentation). I can't imagine how much harder it is if you're a non-English speaker or if you don't have the time and money to go through it all.

US consulates in Montreal, Buenos Aires (Argentina), Rio de Janeiro, Frankfurt (Germany), Hong Kong and Sydney are already testing some of the report's recommendations in new immigrant visa pilot programs. Of course, it'll likely take months if not years to see any real changes to our broken and convoluted immigration system. But it's all still a good sign that, at the very least, the days of immigration forms filled out in triplicate will soon be behind us.

[Image credit: Getty Images]