headshot of Robert Turman

Robert Turman


The immigration processes can be confusing in the best of circumstances. For a refugee fleeing violence with little time to conduct research or prepare, and who may speak poor English, or no English at all, it can be frightening.

It involves multiple federal agencies and requires immigrants and officials to abide by a host of policies and laws. Most immigrants need to engage lawyers, which they struggle to afford, to help them navigate the system and ensure their presence in the United States is legal and that they are properly documented.

None of this is the fault of our federal government. Federal employees work hard and care deeply about making the process as smooth as possible for people fleeing dangerous homelands who want to enter the USA. We have some of the smartest, most compassionate people serving these missions. 

However, the process is inherently complex, and inter-governmental challenges aren’t easy to solve.

Fleeing tyranny, finding uncertain safety 

The difficulty of this system has touched me personally. My family recently employed a nanny who had come to this country as a refugee. She was the most caring person we could have hired for the job. Our two boys love her, and although she left our employment last year, our families are still close; she sometimes comes by to visit, bringing a bowl of her amazing sticky rice. 

Her husband had been a highly-placed military officer in their native country. They had fled with their two children during a regime change, one which put those loyal to the deposed leader in real danger. Our country granted her family refugee status and they came here gratefully.

If I wanted to tell a tale with a happy ending, I would stop here; but there’s much more. Her husband, who once had been in a powerful position, found work bagging groceries here, supplemented with driving for a rideshare service. Meanwhile, she looks after other people’s children to increase their income. And despite all of that hustle, they still struggle to put food on the table, keep current on their rent and pay their legal fees required to stay in the country. 

That is partly because they were advised early on that the pathway from refugee status to citizenship would be easier if they declined some of the benefits that they would be entitled to and instead demonstrated a willingness and ability to sustain themselves through working for wages.

The worst of it, however, is that they are never certain they’ve done everything correctly. The immigration system is complex enough that even with professional legal guidance, they fear that one day they’re going to be detained and deported because of some overlooked nuance or a disagreement on the interpretation of a rule.

Building an AI-powered solution: An ambitious proposal

Could technology provide the solution to this problem? With the increasing power of artificial intelligence, I think it could.

Picture this: A virtual migration advisor, a migrant-facing portal that provides access to resources the newcomers need, bridging the multiple agencies to provide a single point of access to everything. Whether the resources come from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the Department of State or elsewhere, the migrants have crystal-clear guidance at every twist and turn of the immigration journey.

Such a portal could incorporate other agencies as needed, such as other components of the Department of Homeland Security alongside USCIS. Potentially it could link resources from non-governmental organizations and private groups, community resources and qualified legal assistance. It could easily be made multilingual, enabling refugees to be much less worried that a language barrier has led to a misunderstanding somewhere along the line. 

Immigration is not a State Department or USCIS problem to solve, or any other single agency—it's a government problem. If the solution doesn’t span the full scope of the agencies involved, it will be incomplete. My colleague Todd Schuerhoff, who leads the National Justice and Security program here, has suggested this might be a good use case for the Technology Modernization Fund. Read his recent blog on immigration modernization. 

This would require significant buy-in from the agencies that are central to the immigration and refuges experience, along with industry partners and other stakeholders, but I believe it is worthy of consideration. It would also take a commitment from Congress in the form of legislation and consistent funding—which is where the TMF might pay a role. 

How to get started

This is clearly an ambitious goal, but even without such a holistic approach, agencies can look for opportunities to improve the ways in which they convey the needed information to individuals who must comply with the laws. Understanding the universe of tools that federal, state and local agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations and industry use to provide information to migrants can underpin efforts to improve communications. 

Immigration is also a potentially fruitful use case for artificial intelligence. AI tools can provide basic information in online chat and may be trained to be multilingual. 
To make the larger vision a reality, we must think beyond the scope of what we do day to day and take a larger, long-term view. For the sake of people living in fear of their governments, at risk of starvation or caught up in bloody wars, it is important that we do. If America is to be the beacon of hope that we like to think we are, we have to wade into the detail work and get things done. 

To learn more about our work in immigration, visit our website. 

About this author

headshot of Robert Turman

Robert Turman


Rob Turman is part of CGI's International Affairs business unit, where he works across migration and financial management programs to identify the best-in-CGI solutions and services addressing key client pain points and challenges. With deep understand of customer needs, he draws on a breadth of ...