Infopass: USCIS’s alternative to customer service

Sunday, August 7th, 2011
By: Jonathan MontagJ.D.

Widespread are complaints about customer service. People talk and write about insufferable time put on hold when calling for help, being transferred from customer service representative to customer service representative, and long waits until someone who can make a decision is located and a decision is made. As bad as any customer service complaint you may have about your credit card company, utility company, mortgage company, or bank, compared to USCIS, they are head and shoulders above the service USCIS often provides through its Infopass customer service program.

A little empirical data. I have been tracking five similar cases. All involve people applying for permanent residence. The cases were in immigration court. Following agreement by the attorney for the immigration service bureau that represents the government in immigration court, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an immigration judge terminated the cases so USCIS could handle them. The goal of this process is to unburden the immigration court of cases that can be “quickly” handled by USCIS.

Case 1: Terminated by the immigration court March 1, 2011. Three inquiries made to Infopass. Repeated assurances the case would be scheduled for an interview. Case sent to the storage facility in Missouri for completed cases twice. Still no interview.

Case 2: Terminated by the immigration court April 21, 2011. Five inquiries made to Infopass. Repeated assurances the case would be scheduled for an interview. Case sent to the storage facility for completed cases once. Still no interview.

Case 3: Terminated by the immigration court February 16, 2011. the An interview was conducted on May 17, 2011. One inquiry since the interview. Still no decision.

Case 4: Terminated by the immigration court May 25, 2011. One inquiry made to Infopass. Assured case would be scheduled for an interview, Still no interview.

Case 5: Terminated by the immigration court July 10, 2011. One inquiry made to Infopass. Assured case would be scheduled for an interview, Still no interview.

These are cases of  just one genre. I have many others pending equally as long or longer than these that are not being resolved despite repeated Infopass appointments.

USCIS processes hundreds of thousands of cases of various types a year. My handful are not so unique and complex that months and months of deliberation are necessary. It is unfathomable that work is being done on these cases day after day for month after month researching facts and the law to make a decision. It is also unfathomable that the local San Diego office is so backlogged that for all these months, they are not able to schedule the cases or resolve issues.

The delays highlight the charade that is Infopass, USCIS’s customer service system.  In cases pending at a local office, it is considered the best way for customers to get answers about their cases. The customer, or his or her attorney, makes an appointment online and then goes to the appointment at a USCIS office. One can expect to be able to schedule an appointment between a couple of days to a couple of weeks from when you log on to book a time slot.  One can expect to wait between a few minutes and more than an hour to be seen on the day of the appointment. The customer meets the officer who is behind a window. The customer provides information to the officer and the officer then looks up the case and informs you of its status. Of course, in a stalled case, the customer already knows the status – stalled. One hopes the Infopass program goes beyond that – to act on a stalled case to un-stall it.

Going to an appointment can be quite comical. Officers take the information and look in the computer system. At times it is like they are looking in a crystal ball trying to decipher  the cryptic information in it. After minutes of skipping from screen to screen and entering case numbers and file numbers and passwords, sometimes the officer will look up in triumph and declare that the case “is pending.” You do not share the elation as this is not news. When you ask what to do, the advice is to “Wait.” An arbitrary period of time is suggested to wait (one month, two months, six months) and then the advice is to come back and ask again. When the customer asks if there is something wrong or something that can be done to speed things up, the answer is usually, “No.” The pretense is that everything is on track.

Other times, there will be an answer completely unrelated to the case. Then, more crystal ball work and an assurance the case is being dealt with. Sometimes the answer is more substantial but more ominous – the case is under “review.” There is no period of time when the customer can expect an answer. Another week, month, year, decade? The officer cannot say. Sometimes, the answer is an impossible one. The officer will suggest the customer or attorney undertake a process that USCIS has abandoned years earlier. Sometimes the officer will advise that a perfectly legal course of action or perfectly acceptable process is not possible at all. One officer told me about the process involved in getting a case scheduled — that the only way to get a case scheduled is to write a letter to the District Director. In no information provided by the San Diego District was a process like that suggested. I wrote a letter in conformity with this suggestion and it was returned by the mail room with an annotation that inquiries must be made through Infopass.

In June, I attended an immigration lawyers conference where Department of Homeland Security officials came to discuss their agency. At one there was an “open mike” for conference participants to give suggestions as to how to improve services at USCIS. I went to the mike and suggested that officers handling inquiries at Infopass be held accountable for the responses they provide to inquiries as currently there is no record kept of what questions are posed and what answers are given. The officials wrote down the suggestion. Fellow participants approached me afterward to thank me for making such a clever suggestion which, by any estimation was not that clever. The users of the USCIS system are so resigned to the fact that the Infopass system resolves nothing that they cannot even imagine it might work.

USCIS is like a factory churning out visas by the hundreds of thousands. The easy cases stream through faster and more efficiently than ever before (and with astronomically higher fees). An adjustment of status case that was routinely taking three years to adjudicate ten years ago is now taking four months. Everything is run centrally. Applications are filed in remote file reception centers, Lockboxes. They are forwarded to centralized processing centers where adjudication of much of the applications are made and appointments are generated for local offices for final adjudication of issues that require face to face interviews. After interviews, approvals are forwarded to a central office electronically for the approval document to be created and mailed. When a case does not originate at the beginning of this process or cannot proceed through this well-oiled centralized machine, the problems begin. The local offices take forever to make simple decisions and clerks forward pending cases to storage instead of scheduling them. When you ask for help through Infopass, assurances are made that cases are on track when they in fact have fallen into cracks, or ravines, or canyons. Your case is James Franco in “127 Hours,” Days, weeks, months. The customer service representatives, the ones best able to identify a delayed case, a mis-routed case, and case in the cracks, give assurances that all is OK, but their assurances are a brush off. They can say whatever they want because no one knows or cares what they say. All anyone cares about, so it seems, is that you get away from the window so someone else can be “helped.” Posted August 7, 2011.



3 Responses to “Infopass: USCIS’s alternative to customer service”

  1. Mr. Montag,

    Just a follow up to my earlier comment. Yesterday I went to another Infopass appointment and had the good fortune of being helped by an adjudicator instead of a regular information officer. This person really understood that my cases should not be taking this long and immediately resolved my VAWA case – it’s been approved! As for the AOS case, he was able to give me a proper explanation on the delay. What a difference.

    1. Thanks for the news. USCIS should employ knowledgeable officers to deal with inquiries and make them responsible for following up and resolving cases. The present system of having officers simply tell you a case is pending and not looking into them to resolve them is poor customer service and makes people frustrated with and cynical about the organization.

  2. Dear Mr. Montag,

    I, too have had many similar Kafkaesque experiences with the USCIS Infopass. Currently I have two cases where repeated inquiries, by my clients and myself, have resulted in “come back in another month” or “you just have to wait.” In one case we have been waiting for nearly a year for a case to be transferred from the Vermont Service Center after my client had her VAWA AOS interview. In another case, we have waited for 6 months to find out the results of an AOS interview with no end in sight. I’ve requested to speak to the supervisor, who has refused to see me and instead sends the IO with some inapplicable response to my query. The futility of my efforts, sadly, is not unique. Thank you for your blog.

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