Social distancing requirements under the pandemic led to the acceleration of a modernization plan that included adding video feeds to the asylum interview process used by the USCIS, according to technology innovation managers at the agency.
Asylum interviews, used to determine whether an applicant has a credible basis for seeking refuge in the United States, have been held in person at USCIS offices and can last for hours. Asylum case managers are stationed at 10 agency offices in major metropolitan areas. However, in March, said Michael Boyce, chief of USCIS’ Refugee, Asylum and International Operations (RAIO) Directorate, Innovation and Design for Enhanced Adjudication Program Office (IDEA), those in-person visits were paused because of the pandemic.
In remarks during a Dec. 1 Government Executive webcast, Boyce said that pause turned out to be a catalyst for the agency’s modernization and digitization of the asylum application process.
“We couldn’t have in-person interviews for humanitarian asylum applications” with the emerging work-at-home and social distancing precautions and mandates, said Jose Pitti, asylum IDEA chief at RAIO during the webcast.
The agency developed a process using tablet computers, local networks and orchestrated movements for office skeleton staff and applicants at those ten offices, according to Diana Navas, headquarter asylum officer, at RAIO.
USCIS began modernization of the application process in late 2019, but the pandemic pushed down the accelerator, according to Boyce, Pitti and Navas.
Since applicants still had to come into USCIS offices for interviews during the pandemic, the tablets were key to the modernized process, according to Pitti, allowing applicants, translators, attorneys and agency officers to be in different rooms in the building and limit in-person contact.