On July 15, 2015, the Obama White House released a report and fact sheet on "Modernizing and Streamlining Our Legal Immigration System for the 21st Century." The report presents a range of new actions that federal agencies plan to undertake "to improve the visa experience for families, workers, employers, and people in need of humanitarian relief."

The report is connected to President Obama's Immigration Executive Actions, and is based on the work of an interagency group led by the Departments of State (DOS) and Homeland Security (DHS). That interagency group was established in accordance with a November 21, 2014 Presidential Memorandum that called for such a group to consult within the government and with relevant private and nonfederal public stakeholders (such as business people, labor leaders, universities, and legal and technology experts) and recommend ways to:

  1. "streamline and improve the legal immigration system -- including immigrant and non-immigrant visa processing -- with a focus on reforms that reduce Government costs, improve services for applicants, reduce burdens on employers, and combat waste, fraud, and abuse in the system;"
  2. "ensure that administrative policies, practices, and systems use all of the immigrant visa numbers that the Congress provides for and intends to be issued, consistent with demand; and"
  3. "modernize the information technology infrastructure underlying the visa processing system, with a goal of reducing redundant systems, improving the experience of applicants, and enabling better public and congressional oversight of the system."

As part of its review of options leading up to the recommendations that formed the basis of the July 2015 report, on December 30, 2014, DOS and DHS opened a 30-day public comment period to seek ideas on how to modernize and streamline the U.S. immigration system. The agencies received approximately 1,650 comments, including NAFSA's January 29, 2015 comment letter.

The July 2015 White House report states that "[s]everal clear themes emerged from this intergency process and stakeholder feedback. Internal and external stakeholders alike emphasized the need to fully utilize technology to improve and streamline the current system for processing visa applications and requests for other immigration benefits. External stakeholder comments also emphasized frustration with burdensome application requirements, long processing times, and a need for greater transparency and accountability in the application and adjudication processes."

Executive Summary from the Report

Modernizing Our System for Efficiency and Accessibility: Currently, the immigration application and adjudication process is mostly paper-based, requiring documents to change hands and locations among various federal actors at least six times for some petitions. These recommendations will make our system more accessible to applicants, bring our technology into the 21st century, and enhance data transparency:

  • Create a cross-agency digital services team to support the implementation of the modernized immigrant visa project, which is aimed at improving the visa applicant experience and increasing efficiencies in the adjudication process through digitization;
  • Redesign systems with an eye towards a human perspective and accessibility for users;
  • Convene a communications task force to create clearer, plain-language instructions;
  • Adopt best practices for software development and modernize technology stacks to improve content management; and
  • Create an interagency task force to enhance data collection and publication in order to increase transparency.

Streamlining Our Legal Immigration System: Our legal immigration system provides numerous options for individuals to obtain status, temporary or permanent, in the United States, as governed by existing law. Many of these programs are backlogged as a result of statutory caps, which can only be addressed through legislation. However, the following recommendations serve to improve existing programs, making our system more efficient and effective for the applicant as well as our agencies and their teams:

  • Improve the issuance of employment-based immigrant visa numbers;
  • Increase efficiency for international arrivals through enhanced technology and an increased focus on high-risk travelers;
  • Implement the “Known Employer Program,” which will allow employers meeting strict criteria to pre-establish certain requirements as petitioners, by creating a prototype, publishing a report upon completion of the pilot, and creating an implementation plan for a permanent program;
  • Improve integrity and increase the minimum investment for immigrant investor visas; and
  • Enhance opportunities and provide greater clarity for certain nonimmigrants, including the circumstances under which U.S. employers may directly sponsor students on F-1 visas for lawful permanent residence.

Strengthening Our Humanitarian System: There are numerous avenues for humanitarian relief provided to vulnerable individuals in our immigration system. However, many of our existing policies and regulations do not reflect the most recent laws. These recommendations will improve our system for individuals seeking humanitarian relief:

  • Allow certain family members of Filipino veterans, who are currently in the family immigration backlogs, to seek parole so they can care for these aging veterans;
  • Simplify systems for domestic violence survivors who seek immigration relief through the VAWA self-petitioner process;
  • Implement statutory provisions for victims of crime and trafficking; and
  • Provide guidance and consistency for vulnerable populations seeking immigration relief.

These recommendations are concrete steps forward that will improve our legal immigration system. However, they do not offer the permanent, more robust solutions that are vitally needed to address our broken immigration system. President Obama is acting within his legal authority to fix what he can, but only Congress can finish the job by passing comprehensive, commonsense immigration reform that fully brings our legal immigration system into the 21st century. The President remains committed to working with Congress to pursue legislative reform.