It's been more than a year now that we've been able to file the Application for Asylum, form I-589, online, and I think the verdict is in: The online system stinks. So much so, that I have decided to stop filing my cases online and return to sending the paper forms by mail. Among attorneys I know, I am not alone.

Let's start with the form itself. The online I-589 can be completed by the applicant or her attorney. I think if you are filing without a lawyer, the online form is not too bad, assuming you are computer literate and have access to a decent scanner.

To complete the form, you enter your biographic information and an explanation about why you need asylum. Each piece of data (first name, middle name, last name, street address, zip code, etc.) must be entered into a separate box, which is awkward and time consuming. You then upload documents and evidence.

Once you are done, you have to review the form before you submit it. This is more difficult than it sounds, as the information does not appear in a user-friendly format. Instead, it is spread over one large document that you must scroll through to see, and the personal data is difficult to distinguish from the text of the form. All in all, the process is tedious, but if you only have to do it once, it is bearable.

Things become more tricky if you use an attorney. In that case, the attorney completes the form and sends it to the client for review. The interface between the lawyer and the client is not very convenient, and so, for example, if I fill the form and send it to my client, I lose access to the form until the client either approves it or un-approves it. Also, it is not so easy for the client to review the application because of the way it is formatted.

To make it easier, our office has been completing the old-school I-589 with our clients, and once that is done, we enter the data into the online system. This is more work, since we are completing both the online and paper forms, but it saves time overall, as the old form is much more user friendly.

Awkward mechanics aside, the real problem with the online I-589 is that it does not always work. Once the data is entered and the form is approved by the client and our office, we receive an automatic notice that the case was successfully submitted. But beware! Success does not always mean success. In many cases, after a few moments, a message appears indicating that the form cannot be filed online and that it must be sent by mail.

USCIS offers no explanation about why a particular applicant's form cannot be filed online, and I cannot see any difference between a case that is accepted and one that is rejected. That's a problem, as we are forced to waste time entering data for people whose cases will ultimately be rejected. If this only happened once in a blue moon, or if the system informed us that we had to file by mail before we spent time completing the online form, it might not be a big deal. But that is not how it works. We only learn whether the system will accept the form after we do all the work. Also, rejections are common. I would guess that about 50% of applications get rejected by the online system.

If the application is rejected, you cannot return to the fillable form (though you can still access a non-fillable PDF of the form, so at least you have a record of the information you entered). When the form is rejected, USCIS issues an Alien number and a receipt number (though there is no actual receipt). Why the agency gives the asylum seeker an Alien number and a receipt number when the application is rejected, I do not know. But after the rejection, when we file by mail, we include the Alien number on the paper I-589, and in the cover letter, we explain that our online filing was rejected and we list the Alien and receipt numbers.

One question that I cannot answer is whether filing online and getting rejected protects the applicant from the one-year filing deadline (asylum applicants must show that they filed the I-589 within one year of arriving in the United States or that they meet an exception to that rule; otherwise, asylum may be denied as untimely). For a paper application, where the form is mailed within one year, but rejected and re-sent after the one year deadline, the application is considered timely as long as it was re-sent within a "reasonable" period of time after the rejection. See 8 C.F.R. § 208.4(a)(5)(v). I would imagine that the same principle should apply to rejected online applications, and so if this is an issue for you, it is best to mail the paper application as soon as possible.

When it works, the online system is probably better than the paper system. You don't have to worry about the application being lost in the mail. You get a receipt and biometric notice very quickly, and you can submit additional evidence online. Unfortunately, all the random rejections make online filing unpredictable, unreliable, and a huge waste of time. I hope USCIS will resolve these issues in 2024 so I can return to filing online. Until then, please pass me my inkwell and quill pen, as I have some forms to complete...

Originally posted on the Asylumist: