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USCIS Delivers Customer Service in 140 Characters

  • Aline Barros

FILE - Community activists rally during an event on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) in downtown Los Angeles, California, Feb. 17, 2015.

FILE - Community activists rally during an event on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) in downtown Los Angeles, California, Feb. 17, 2015.

Some federal agencies are delivering customer service in 140 characters.

On Tuesday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services hosted its Twitter office hours to engage customers and answer questions as quickly as they came. The monthly event targeted anyone with questions about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 that offers protections to young immigrants, allowing them to work legally for two years.

Questions from "Can we have the DACA FAQs in Korean?" to "How can I tell if an employer is discriminating against me because I am a DACA recipient?" were part of the hourlong #AskDACA chat.

"USCIS conducts extensive outreach efforts on a variety of topics that are important to our customers. Additionally, uscis.gov provides an extensive amount of material and tools to assist those looking for information on immigration benefits," Steve Blando, public affairs officer at USCIS, told VOA by email.

FILE - Hundreds of immigrants line up outside of Casa de Maryland to get help with documents and filling for the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals applications in Langley Park, Maryland, Aug. 15, 2012.

FILE - Hundreds of immigrants line up outside of Casa de Maryland to get help with documents and filling for the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals applications in Langley Park, Maryland, Aug. 15, 2012.

A team of USCIS staff answered 18 questions during Tuesday's Twitter chat office hours. Experts review the submitted questions to determine which ones to answer. One criterion in choosing which question to answer, Blando said, is whether it would be of interest to a large number of stakeholders.

"The Twitter office hours are very successful, as evidenced by the consistently excellent, relevant questions we receive. We always get more than we can answer during a session," Blando said.

The initiative started in September, and the event was inspired by Free Application for Federal Student Aid's popular Twitter office hours. According to a blog post from USCIS on DigitalGov, prior to any Twitter chat, staff had concerns about customer privacy, defining audience, not getting enough questions, and what content could be tweeted. These concerns were quickly overruled within minutes of the first Twitter office hours event.

"One of the biggest takeaways from our first hour on Twitter was that our customers are definitely willing to ask us immigration questions via Twitter," the post said.

Great need

The questions, however, came as no surprise to Ignacia Rodriguez, an executive action legal fellow for the California-based National Immigration Law Center.

"There is always, consistently, a need to give explanations" about what DACA is and what the requirements are, as well as a need "to remind people that the program is still available,” Rodriguez said.

DACA was an earlier deferred action initiative that applied to people who came to the United States as children, and it had an age limit. Obama said he took executive action because Congress failed to overhaul the immigration system.

In 2014, Obama expanded the earlier version of DACA to include people who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 and had attended school here, and the age limit was removed.

FILE - Children stand in line with some of the thousands of young immigrants at Chicago's Navy Pier on Aug. 15, 2012.

FILE - Children stand in line with some of the thousands of young immigrants at Chicago's Navy Pier on Aug. 15, 2012.

Obama also signed executive actions deferring deportations for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. since at least 2010, have a child who is a U.S. citizen or is in the country legally, and do not have a criminal record. The new program was known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

But a lawsuit, U.S. v. Texas, being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, asks the court to consider whether the president's 2014 executive actions deferring deportations for some undocumented immigrants are within the government's authority to direct immigration policy, or whether the president exceeded his constitutional authority by making new immigration laws.

"People get confused with what's going on at the Supreme Court level. Some may think DACA is being challenged. It is not. It's DAPA and expanded DACA," Rodriguez said.

‘Building trust’

For the legal fellow, there is always a need to raise awareness about the program that is still in place.

As of March 31, USCIS officials said 819,512 individuals had applied for initial DACA and 511,119 had renewed their DACA applications before the expiration date.

Staff answered 18 immigration questions during the Twitter event, and the agency's Twitter page has approximately 72,000 followers.

"The efforts from USCIS are just fantastic. Honestly, meeting people where they are — a lot of DACA recipients are young and on social media. … It's really a great step in the right direction in building trust and then building transparency," Rodriguez said.

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