Each year more than 100 million immigration forms are filed with the United States Citizenship & Immigration Service (USCIS), which can be as life-changing as a citizenship application or as mundane as a simple change of address. 

With all the discussion around immigration reform, what is clear is that there will be more people eligible for more statuses and, ultimately, more forms being filed. The process of identifying, completing and filing these forms is often overlooked.

The immigration code is roughly equal to the tax code in length and complexity; a 4-page form might have 11 pages of instructions which still don’t cover all the questions an applicant might have.

- Michael Petrucelli

It is estimated that around 15 percent of the forms are completed with the help of an immigration attorney. Properly licensed and qualified immigration professionals provide important expertise and are especially valuable in complicated cases. However, they can be pretty expensive. Most immigration lawyers charge between $5,000 and $7,500 to accompany a client through the green card process. According to ABC News, some cases can cost closer to $15,000 per applicant before adding on an average of almost $700 in government application fees.”

As an outgrowth of the immigration support industry, some neighborhoods in the U.S. are well-known for having “notarios” or “immigration consultants” who use false advertising and fraudulent claims to be qualified to help immigrants obtain lawful status. Unethical notarios may charge a lot of money for “help” of poor quality. Worse still, they have been known to hold USCIS responses “for ransom” before passing along to the applicant. There is also a significant risk of identity theft, as, often, victims permanently lose opportunities to pursue immigration relief because a notario has damaged their case.

Ultimately, since the application process is focused on proving basic information about yourself, many people try to complete the forms themselves. This “DIY” approach is cost-efficient as the only costs for the applicant are the government filing fees. However, the forms are often confusing and hard to interpret – even for native English speakers. 

The immigration code is roughly equal to the tax code in length and complexity; a four-page form might have 11 pages of instructions which still don’t cover all the questions an applicant might have. Any errors, inconsistencies or missing information can lead to hold ups in the process, requests for additional information, or worst, rejection and inability to resubmit. In many cases it is hard for an individual to know how an answer might be interpreted by a USCIS immigration adjudicator.

Most recently, a number of new, online services have been promoting immigration eligibility screeners and guidance – together with plenty of useful information – to guide users toward the correct form and helping them understand the questions more clearly. Along the way they provide useful tool tips, graphical information and pop-up alerts. In the same way that “TurboTax®” can help taxpayers complete their tax filings themselves, the most sophisticated immigration solutions use intelligent rules-based engines that can assistant immigrants in the filing process. 

These sites can check for errors in real-time, ensure consistency across the form and, importantly, significantly reduce the time it takes to complete a form. These sites are new developments in online services, so it is important to check the credibility, expertise and trustworthiness of any site and its endorsers and developers.

Michael J. Petrucelli was acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) after previously serving as the agency’s deputy director for two years. He is the founder of Clearpath, an online immigration startup.

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