WASHINGTON — The immigration service, long viewed as a backwater of information technology, is taking a step into the digital age.
Federal authorities are starting a program today that will allow millions of people to apply for immigration benefits electronically.
How many people will actually use the service remains to be seen. Authorities are estimating that only 10% of the people eligible will choose the electronic applications in the first year because of language barriers and lack of access to computers.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the concept will also put in digital form a trove of personal information about immigrants that will be available to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
Nonetheless, the idea of allowing people to file online -- rather than stand in sometimes interminably long lines -- is considered a milestone.
"The introduction of e-filing represents an important stride in our effort to deliver immigration services in a more efficient and customer-friendly way while meeting our national security objectives," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement prepared for the plan's unveiling in Los Angeles.
Starting May 29, immigrants will be able to renew or replace a green card, or obtain an employment authorization card, by completing an online application. They will then be directed to an immigration office that will electronically collect their photograph, signature and fingerprint. Applicants will be able to check the status of pending filings on the bureau's Web site, www.immigration.gov.
The process will save people the cost of a photograph, which will now be incurred by immigration authorities, and, it is hoped, cut down on the number of trips applicants have to make to their local immigration office.
The immigration bureau believes it will save on the costs of entering data into its computers and processing the payments, which also will be done electronically. It hopes to be able to reuse the digitized information in connection with filings for other benefits, but is still working out the details.
Officials conceded some significant drawbacks. Initially, the forms will be available only in English. And many people likely to apply do not have easy access to computers, officials acknowledged.
They also noted in providing for electronic filing of forms, the immigration bureau is a step behind other federal agencies. "We are not where the [Internal Revenue Service] is yet," a person familiar with the new service said.
About 2.5 million green card and employment-authorization forms are filed each year -- about 30% of the total benefit forms handled annually by the immigration bureau. Those two forms were selected because they are relatively easy to complete and involve little supporting documentation. The immigration bureau hopes to phase in electronic filing of other forms over the next four years.