This Obama-Era Agency Is Trying to Speed Immigration Under Trump’s Nose

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The Trump administration deployed military forces to block asylum seekers from crossing the southern U.S. border and is indefinitely detaining more than 14,000 migrant children, so it’s easy to overlook that missing paperwork is quietly threatening the legal status of hundreds of thousands of green card holders. The backlog of legal residents waiting for their renewal forms to be processed topped a record 700,000 at one point last year, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) says that 34 of the 42 forms it handles now take longer to process than they did in 2016. To keep people from being accidentally deported while their renewals were pending, the agency started sending them little rectangular stickers with extended expiration dates to affix to their laminated green cards. When it ran out of stickers, it called Matt Cutts.

Cutts runs the U.S. Digital Service, an executive-branch agency created by President Barack Obama to salvage the botched website and drag the feds into the digital age. He became the USDS’s second administrator on President Trump’s first day, taking over from a former Google colleague. Cutts’s staff of 170, a smattering of them drawn from Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, is credited with saving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs $100 million by streamlining its cloud computing systems, with editing language on the Veterans Administration’s benefits website to make sure it ranks high in Google searches, and even with building a radio-frequency jammer that disables enemy drones. Now the USDS is undertaking its biggest challenge yet: making immigrants’ lives easier without attracting Trump’s ire.

Cutts walks a fine line, stressing that his team is nonpartisan and focused on the Republican watchword “efficiency.” Asked about the administration’s now-suspended policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border, Cutts demurs. “That’s more an issue of process and policies than technology,” he says, though he acknowledges that his team reads the news and discusses ways to help people. Some of his staffers are less diplomatic. “I don’t work for Trump,” says Liz Odar, who joined the agency in early 2016 from LivingSocial, the faded Groupon Inc. look-alike. “I work for the government, and I work for the American people.”

On immigration, the agency’s record is mixed. The USDS began working on the green card queue last year, noticing that the USCIS software classified routine issues such as a change of address just as seriously as, say, a green card holder being arrested. The team created a program to sift renewal applicants by risk category, feeding the change-of-address types into a faster lane. The digital service says the software has helped cut the overall USCIS backlog by about two-thirds.

Yet the reality on the ground hasn’t improved for everyone, says Denyse Sabagh, an immigration attorney at law firm Duane Morris LLP. “It seems like the agency is geared now to deny cases across the board,” she says, and it’s no clearer why her clients’ renewal requests are taking so long to process, with some basic cases that would once require a few days taking five months and complex ones taking years.

Things are worse for the 300,000 people still awaiting the asylum they asked for upon entering the U.S. Some have now been in the queue for five years, and it can take three years to even get an interview with a U.S. immigration official. The gridlock encourages people who know they’re unlikely to receive asylum to file claims simply to delay deportation, says USDS Executive Director Stephanie Neill, previously a product director at internet conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp. She and other staffers are testing a program that autofills most of the basic details in post-interview reports.

“With asylum, the challenge is that everyone gets an interview,” says Odar. “There’s no one quick fix.” The border blockade preventing more than 6,000 people from entering the U.S. will likely reduce the asylum backlog, but it’s too early to say by how much, according to USDS.

The USDS effort to overhaul citizen naturalization has gone poorly. The process seemed easy enough to improve: USCIS staff were still hand-checking details on each form, because the old program they were using couldn’t be trusted. (A find-and-replace command intended to delete answers that were “not applicable” instead deleted the letters “na” everywhere it found them, so Donna’s application became Don’s, for instance.) The USDS replacement, while less error-prone, was still unreliable and slow to load on its release this summer. “It was so bad the agency said, ‘Stop! Do not put any more applications into this brand-new system until you fix these problems,’ ” says Mark Lerner, who joined the digital service from Google in early 2016. Lerner is among the staffers testing a version to be rolled out in the next few months.

Government service was a tough sell in Silicon Valley even under the tech-friendly Obama administration, which landed many a departing top staffer at big-name companies. Cutts’s USDS has had to work harder to recruit top talent, with the administrator and others repeatedly touring Silicon Valley and a dozen other tech hubs to pitch the gig as a nonpartisan mission of public service.

Whatever his team can do can’t come soon enough, says Arzan Raimalwala, an Indian investment banker who’s lived in the U.S. on work visas for 15 of the past 16 years. Raimalwala’s 2015 green card application remains so deep in the USCIS queue that it won’t be evaluated until at least 2024, he says. He fears that further Trump crackdowns might cut off the supply of work visas, forcing him to sell his house and move his family, including his infant American daughter. “There was always that risk,” he says. “But it’s definitely more so under this administration.” 

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeff Muskus at, Alistair Barr

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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