Reports are that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intends to eliminate use of the paper Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record (often referred to as an “I-94 card”) on a system-wide basis in the not-too-distant future. Initial plans were to phase out the paper I-94 beginning last summer, but with anticipated cost and time savings, it seems that the plan may have changed to an overall accelerated elimination of the card.
What is an I-94?
One of the most important documents to a nonimmigrant, the I-94 card indicates a nonimmigrant’s immigration status while in the United States and serves as evidence of lawful admission into the country—which is critical to a later greencard application. A person’s immigration status, of course, sets the parameters on what activities are permissible here (e.g., work, study, business or pleasure visit, etc.).
Except in limited circumstances, such as for a person in F (student) or J (exchange visitor) status, the I-94 normally includes a specific end date. The ending validity date is the date when the nonimmigrant’s status expires and by which he or she must depart the US unless appropriate and timely steps are taken to extend or change his or her status, or to otherwise enable the individual to remain in the US lawfully.
Typically, the paper I-94 form is provided for completion on an airplane as one approaches the country, otherwise at a port of entry, or is issued by USCIS as the right, bottom 1/3 of an I-797 approval notice.
Why does CBP want to eliminate the paper I-94?
There seem to be two main reasons for wanting to discontinue use of the paper I-94: 1) the information is already available to CBP (so why re-collect it?), and 2) savings of time and money.
First, CBP already has access to the information which appears on the I-94 card because the information is included on the nonimmigrant visa application form (DS-160) which each nonimmigrant must complete when applying for a visa at a U.S. consul, and is available to CBP through other resources. CBP’s use of existing information and automation of the admission record should help to ensure consistency between data on the visa stamp issued at the consul and the admission stamp that CBP plans to issue.
Next, CBP expects to save about $36 million annually in the cost of manpower/contractors; printing, storage, distribution, gathering of the I-94 cards; postage; and data entry. Further, it is anticipated that port-of-entry officers will save approximately 30 seconds of time per entry if the admission record is automated.
How will a nonimmigrant’s status be evidenced without the I-94?
It appears that as evidence of lawful admission and immigration status, CBP will begin issuing admission stamps directly in the passports of nonimmigrants. The proposed admission stamps would use information already in CBP’s electronic systems. Current plans are for CBP inspecting officers to handwrite each nonimmigrant’s status and authorized period of stay on the admission stamp.
The record of admission will be electronic, similar to that currently used for some waivered tourists, but in order to comply with current requirements, there is speculation that CBP may continue to issue or provide for nonimmigrants to print a paper document to evidence their status.
Does elimination of the paper I-94 really matter?
The I-94 is a key document for employers during completion of the I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification process (whether or not they are enrolled in E-Verify), for the Social Security Administration in issuing social security numbers to eligible nonimmigrants, and for driver’s license centers, among others. Many electronic systems which support these critical functions have been tailored to include I-94 information. When any changes are finalized by CBP, electronic systems and paper forms may have to be re-configured, regulations and instructions revised, and personnel updated regarding the changes. The impact may initially be far-and-wide, but with time, it should eventually all work out.