Here's a point that should be self-evidence, but isn't: Bureaucracy exists to facilitate the implementation of the law. Congress passes a law, and then government agencies create a system of policies and procedures to put that law into effect. In principle, this system should be easy to use and efficient, and should allow people to obtain the benefits to which they are entitled. In other words, it should be the exact opposite of what we have with the USCIS.

There are many problems with the agency that adjudicates immigration benefits (including asylum), but here, I want to focus on one particular area of concern: USCIS forms. USCIS forms are poorly designed, confusing, inconsistent, culturally insensitive, and inefficient. Here, we'll discuss these problems in a bit more detail, and I will make some suggestions for improvement.

Let's start with the most basic question on every USCIS form--the applicant's name. Almost every form has boxes for an applicant's first, middle, and last name. The problem is that naming convention vary widely, depending on where you are from. Many cultures do not have a first-middle-last name format, and so the USCIS question does not make much sense. One solution might be to ask the question in a more specific way: "Write your name as it appears on your passport." Of course, not everyone has a passport, so maybe a second question can ask: "Write your name as it appears on your birth certificate or other government-issued identity document." In addition to these iterations, the name question would also need to ask about "all other names used" (as many USCIS forms currently do). The confusion surrounding this very basic question--What is your name?--illustrates the difficultly of creating one-size-fits-all forms.

Another problem arises with regard to addresses and places of employment. One issue here is that address formats vary widely by country, and the forms generally only allow for addresses in the format that we use in the United States. Another issue is that different forms request address and employment histories in different ways. So for example, the I-589 form (application for asylum) allows you to list one address or one job per line, so that your address and job histories fit onto one page (with room to spare). The I-485 (application for permanent residency), by contrast, requires this information in a different format, so that less information takes up much more space. The N-400 (application for citizenship) requests the same information in a third format. Maybe this is a minor quibble, but the inconsistencies between the various forms is confusing, and it is not confined only to the applicant's address and work histories.

One area where inter-form differences sometimes create problems is the issue of arrest history. Different forms ask about this in different ways. Sometimes, USCIS wants information about all arrests. Other times, they want only information about criminal arrests or convictions. In some questions, USCIS wants to know about arrests anywhere in the world; other times, they want only arrests that occurred in the United States. Indeed, if you look at the main forms a successful asylum applicant will complete over the course of their time with USCIS, there are probably dozens of questions about criminal activity, and those questions are inconsistent between forms, and--in many cases--confusing, even for someone trained in the law.

Speaking of confusing questions, if you look at the lists of questions on the I-485 and the N-400, you will see scores of yes/no questions about all sorts of activities. Some of these questions are not amenable to a yes-or-no answer. Others (many others) are poorly written and difficult to understand. In many cases, the two forms ask similar questions using different language. All this can easily trip up an applicant and can lead to unintentional inconsistencies where there really are none.

Another problem is the large number of yes-or-no questions on many forms (the I-485, for example, has over 100 yes/no questions). These questions relate to everything from criminal and immigration violations, to national security, to persecution of others, to membership in totalitarian political parties, to prostitution and illegal gambling. Most people check almost all the boxes "no," but periodically, they may need to check "yes." Given the vast number of questions, the fact that almost all are "no," and the fact that many of the questions are confusing, it is easy to slip up and miss a "yes" answer. This can lead to big trouble, including having your application denied.

These examples represent just a few of the problems with USCIS forms, and every immigration lawyer can cite many more. The short answer is that all USCIS forms need a major overhaul. This should be done with an eye towards making the forms shorter (the I-485 and the N-400 are each 20 pages long). The forms should be made consistent with each other in terms of format and the substance of questions asked. They should accommodate different naming and address conventions.

Also, USCIS needs to do something about the overwhelming number of yes/no questions. There are too many questions, many are difficult to understand or redundant (or both), and many are irrelevant (do we really need three questions about Nazi activity between 1933 and 1945?). The number of questions should be reduced and the questions themselves should be simplified so that you don't need a law degree to understand what the heck USCIS is asking about.

One final point on forms: Why are we still printing forms and mailing paper copies to the agency (to a plethora of different mailing addresses)? A limited number of forms can be filed online, and USCIS should expand e-filing, so that all forms and evidence can be filed online. E-filing would also solve the problem of USCIS rejecting forms for simple mistakes or for not writing "N/A" in every empty box.

To reform its forms, USCIS needs help. It needs to hear from immigration advocates, immigrants, and other stakeholders. Forms should be more understandable and more able to accommodate cultural differences. Questions should be standardized across different forms, and the format of the forms should be made more consistent. All forms should be available for online filing.

Improving USCIS forms is long overdue. Fixing the forms will make USCIS more efficient, and will ultimately save everyone time, trouble, and money. The purpose of USCIS forms is to facilitate the application process and to help USCIS determine who is--and is not--eligible for an immigration benefit. More efficient forms will help move USCIS towards these goals.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: