Earlier this year, folks in the U.S. immigration technology community were greeted with a delightful e-mail: An invitation to join a listening session with USCIS about a future API interface to the agency.
If you're not familiar with the current public tech offerings of USCIS, it's because none exist. To date, there is no API or programmatic way to query information about a case. There are certain apps that effectively scrape the USCIS web services, but they're subject to questionable legalities and breaking changes on the USCIS website. There are electronic versions of some USCIS forms available, but those are limited in their scope and can be confusing when submitted in conjunction with an immigration attorney or other intermediary.
What USCIS appears to be working on (or thinking about working on, more on that later) is an API for case submission, specifically the vital forms information that is submitted with every immigration case.
An API is a technical way for systems to share data in a standardized form. For example, when someone creates an event on your Calendly, it syncs with your internal calendar through an API, sends a notification to your Slack through an API, and creates a new Zoom meeting through an API.
Other government agencies, including those within DHS, utilize public-facing APIs with great success. The IRS eFile APIs link tax and accounting software so we can efficiently pay our taxes. The DHS eVerify API helps companies electronically file their I-9 verifications.
Case submission now consists of printed forms and mailings to the respective USCIS Service Center. This rudimentary process is slow and cumbersome for all parties involved. Case files are sent between various offices during adjudication. Information available in a file can sometimes be misplaced. Any subsequent correspondence follows the same slow back-and-forth pace.
An API will begin to close the technology gap in U.S. immigration
The United States is currently facing an unprecedented visa backlog. This backlog is partly caused by the antiquated technology in use at USCIS. Our friends at Boundless blogged about the "crisis-level" backlog last year, including a suggestion for an API. While the rollout of such an API will take time and won't immediately solve all of the immigration backlog issues, the outpouring of interest and support from the technology companies that would implement the API within their systems is promising.
Most immigration attorneys and professionals already use some form of case management software, such as Docketwise or INSZoom. Each case management application would need to create and maintain an integration with USCIS through the proposed API. Most of the case management software on the market now provides support for USCIS forms, which is great. The API should be a natural extension of the forms that USCIS currently publishes.
How will a USCIS API assist non-technical people?
The introduction of a USCIS API could open new outlets for startups that focus on global mobility. Navigating immigration law is not easy, but apps that assist everyday folks in preparing their immigration applications could have profoundly positive effects on net immigration to the United States.
Beyond case management software, I anticipate the larger immigration law firms such as Fragomen or Bridge Legal will work on their own integrations to further enhance the services they offer for their clients. Beyond corporate immigration, several representatives of non-profits have indicated their interest in implementations as well.
What we do know about the technical pieces of the USCIS API?
We don't know much yet. Fortunately, the feedback from stakeholders in the case management sector has pushed for modern API development capabilities, including things like web hooks, a sandbox environment for testing, and the ability to test out various scenarios and use cases.
At ImmiTranslate, we're paying close attention to what standards USCIS develops for supplementary evidence, including the translations that we produce for our clients.
When will we see the USCIS API launch?
Unfortunately, there has been no date attached. In fact, beyond the USCIS listening session, the government has been incredibly tight lipped about what, if anything, is being planned. The development of an API for USCIS is probably one of the largest technology undertakings the agency will pursue, so it will take some time before we learn more or even see the technical schematics required to integrate.
I'd like to applaud USCIS for taking these steps and encourage anyone that has input to direct it towards USCIS. They've indicated public comments can be submitted to email@example.com for inclusion.
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