Last week, I attended a meeting about InfoPass for the Asylum Offices. InfoPass is an online system that allows you to make an in-person appointment about your immigration case. It has been in use by USCIS for about 15 years, and now the Asylum Offices are debuting their own version of the scheduling tool. The system is operational in my local office (Arlington, Virginia), but it is not yet available nationwide. Here, I want to talk about why the Asylum Offices are implementing InfoPass and what it will do. I also want to offer some constructive criticism (or, as we say in Yiddish, I want to kvetch).

There seems to be a couple main reasons why the Asylum Offices are adopting InfoPass. First, they want to be better prepared when people show up for an inquiry. With the current walk-in system, the Asylum Office ("AO") does not know who is coming in or why, and so they cannot prepare in advance for the meeting. InfoPass will give the AO a heads-up, which will (theoretically) allow them to pull the file, and possibly have an answer when the person arrives. Second, InfoPass will reduce the likelihood that the AO will lose documents (a problem at my local office) because they will have the file available when the new documents arrive. Third, the new system will help manage the flow of visitors to the office and reduce wait times. The overall goal is to provide better, more efficient service.

So what can you do with InfoPass? Once you reach the InfoPass appointment page (and remember, this link is only for the Arlington office), you will see that there are about a dozen different options, from changing your address to changing your lawyer, delivering documents, inquiring about an interview or a decision, asking about the asylum clock or missing receipts, and withdrawing the case. There is also an "other" option for nonconformists. Depending on the reason for the visit, appointment availabilities and the time allotted for your visit will vary. So if you are dropping off documents, you will receive a shorter time slot than if you are inquiring about a delayed decision. If all goes well, when you arrive at your appointment, you will be received by a person who has reviewed your file, and is ready to help you.

Before we turn to the constructive criticism/kvetching, it is important to acknowledge that the Asylum Office is trying to make things better, and they should be commended for that. For me, one take away from the meeting last week is that creating an Asylum Office InfoPass system is really hard. Not only are they building something new and integrating it with existing systems, which is technologically challenging, but they also have to account for the human factor--desperate people trying desperately to talk to a human being. It ain't easy.

The AO's efforts are laudable, but I have some concerns about the system as it is currently envisioned.

The first problem is that people who are seeking USCIS InfoPass appointments--as opposed to Asylum Office InfoPass appointments--are filling appointment slots at the AO. During the first day of testing, something like 40 appointments were filled up almost as soon as the system went live. All but one were taken by people who were not asylum seekers, and who were actually seeking appointments with USCIS. The problem is that "regular" InfoPass appointments are almost impossible to get, and so these non-asylum seekers migrated from the regular InfoPass webpage to the AO InfoPass webpage. It doesn't help that links to both types of InfoPass appointments appear on the same USCIS webpage.

The obvious solution is to limit AO InfoPass appointments to asylum seekers. However, as I understand it, there are technical issues that make it difficult to implement such a system, and so the AO is stuck manually going over the appointment requests to determine whether they are actually for asylum seekers. This seems untenable, and I suspect some technological fix will eventually become necessary. Maybe an interim solution is to put a link to the AO InfoPass webpage on the Asylum Office website, as opposed to the USCIS website. At least that would reduce the likelihood that "regular" InfoPass people would sign up for an AO InfoPass.

Another problem--and this is more for lawyers than for asylum seekers--is that we now need an InfoPass appointment to file documents. While I understand why the AO is requiring this (so they can pull the file in advance and insert the new evidence), it will be a hardship for lawyers. Most cases require the submission of additional documents before the interview. The problem is, we only get about three weeks notice before an interview, and (at least in Arlington) all evidence must be submitted one week prior to the interview. Thus, once we get notice of the interview, we have precious little time to complete the case. Adding a further constraint--such as the need for an appointment to file documents--is going to be very challenging. We often don't know when the evidence packet will be ready, and so it is difficult to know when to schedule an appointment. Also, it is easier for repeat players, like lawyers, to file documents when they are going to the AO for some other reason. If we have to make extra trips to file documents, we may need to pass the expense on to our clients. This will make it more difficult for asylum seekers to afford legal help.

I expect that most lawyers would rather file documents by mail than make an InfoPass appointment. The problem is that evidence filed this way is more likely to get lost, which could result in the interview being rescheduled.

A third problem is that appointment slots are limited, and I fear that many will be filled by asylum seekers who repeatedly appear at the AO to inquire about their cases. While I understand that people are anxious and want to talk to a human being, without some limitation on the frequency that asylum seekers can appear at the AO, others who need appointments may not be able to get them. One (partial) solution here might be to identify questions that are amenable to telephonic or email responses, and then to contact the person prior to the appointment. The AO is hoping to implement such a system, but probably not anytime soon.

To me, the basic issue is that we need knowable, enforceable rules about InfoPass and about the asylum system in general. I've written previously about how the AO could make its webpage more useful. If people were more well-informed, they would have less need for InfoPass.

Based on the meeting last week, I think the AO is aware of these (and other) issues. They are open about the fact that the new InfoPass system is a work in progress, and that it will evolve as they learn more about how it is being used and what people need. While I can't say I am thrilled about the new document filing system, InfoPass for asylum seekers is otherwise a positive development. Hopefully, the AO will continue to upgrade their systems and respond to the needs of stakeholders. If so, I expect they will improve efficiency and help ease the pain for those who are waiting.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: