Employers should be able to ditch the paper visa application process in around two years.

The shift could have big implications not just for reducing backlogs and processing times, but also for a recent sore spot for employers sponsoring workers for H-1B skilled guestworker visas: the lack of premium processing.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna said his “top priority” for the agency is to move to all-electronic applications and petitions. “It’s going to happen before the end of 2020,” Cissna said in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Law.

“Indeed, we’re so certain it’s going to happen that we’re already planning for the electronic environment.” The flexibility provided by cloud storage of documents will greatly ease the workflow, he said.

Despite previous, unsuccessful attempts at getting away from a paper-based process, “this time it’s different,” he said.

Rather than creating an electronic system that takes care of the entire process from intake to adjudication, the focus is solely on making the intake process electronic. “E-processing,” as the new initiative is called, is more technologically manageable and realistic to complete over the next two years and two months, Cissna said.

“The efficiencies gained will be so great that the agency can finally turn more people to more productive endeavors,” he said.

Return of Premium Processing?

Premium processing lets employers pay an additional fee to guarantee that their H-1B petitions will be decided within 15 calendar days. But that fast-track option hasn’t been available since employers first started seeking the visas for the current fiscal year back in April. The agency recently announced that it expects the premium processing option to remain suspended until at least February.

The USCIS also suspended premium processing in 2017, although for a shorter period of time.

Some immigration advocates say the premium processing suspension is a deliberate attempt to slow down the visa process and block foreign workers from the U.S. But Cissna says it was simply a lack of resources for handling the premium processing as well as other important matters, such as H-1B workers who were in danger of losing their work authorization as their visa extension requests languished.

Suspending premium processing was an “unfortunate necessity” and “I don’t want it to happen again,” Cissna said.

Going paperless, combined with the agency’s proposal to create a preregistration process for H-1B visa petitions, “would help to alleviate massive administrative burdens on USCIS service centers that process H-1B petitions,” he said. The agency “would no longer need to physically receive and handle hundreds of thousands” of petitions and supporting documents” before running the annual H-1B lottery, “helping to reduce backlogs and wait times,” he said.

Weight of Paper

The paper-based system “is just holding us back like a sea anchor, but the minute we can cut that thing off, we’ll be in a much better place,” Cissna said.

The agency has spent years and billions of dollars attempting to transform its system into one that can receive and process visa applications and petitions electronically, with little to show for it except a small handful of forms that now can be filed electronically.

A scathing 2016 report from the DHS Office of the Inspector General said prior electronic transformation attempts “have been hampered by ineffective planning, multiple changes in direction, and inconsistent stakeholder involvement.” The agency’s “antiquated system of paper-based files” isn’t only inefficient but also a security risk, the OIG said.

Banking on the progress thus far, USCIS already is preparing for how it’s going to work in a new, electronic environment, Cissna said.

The agency is determining how it will assign work among adjudicators when petitions are in the cloud instead of sitting in a service center, he said. The agency might actually get to a “first in, first out” system because adjudicators could tackle petitions regardless of where they’re physically stationed, he said.

“We won’t have to be moving pallets of cases” if workloads need to be shifted among the service centers because of volume, Cissna said. “Millions” are spent right now “moving paper around to reallocate work flows,” he said. “That would end overnight.”

“More people can be adjudicating stuff instead of moving files around or managing paper,” Cissna said. “If we’re moving quicker, then backlogs go down, adjudication time windows go down, costs could go down dramatically.”