As the UK continues to move towards a fully online system for evidencing immigration status, Kuba Jabłonowski sets out the ongoing issues with digital immigration status, including various glitches and difficulty coping with multiple records.
The roll out of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) was a major watershed in the UK immigration system. Until Brexit, immigration status was evidenced with a document held by the applicant: a passport sticker, a biometric residence permit, a permanent residence card, and so on. Since Brexit, online services are gradually replacing such documents.
Under the EUSS, immigration decisions are issued digitally and stored remotely – away from the status holder. Biometric cards, still issued for other immigration routes, are set to be phased out by 2024. Once completed, this reform will move immigration status online. Status checks will instantly reflect any upgrade, curtailment, or termination of the right to work, rent, and so on.
According to the Home Office, there are three main benefits of this approach. Firstly, applicants can view and evidence their status online as soon as it is issued. Secondly, those checking are shown the current entitlements of the person they check, because information is drawn directly from immigration case management systems. Thirdly, status checks can be run automatically by institutions granted access to data-sharing interfaces managed by the Home Office. At present, this includes the HMRC, DWP, DVLA, NHS England and Wales, Social Security Scotland, and some local authorities. The list will grow.
This reform raises fundamental questions about digital record keeping and automated decision making. Firstly, where exactly is a digital record of immigration status held – and does it satisfy the principle of transparency and the right of access under data protection laws? Secondly, how does the system cope where multiple status records exist for the same person – and does the resolution always give their correct legal status?
The UK immigration system often mandates multiple applications on the route to settlement. One status holder may have different decisions recorded for them on different caseworking platforms as they switch, renew, or upgrade immigration status, or as they challenge incorrect decisions through reviews and appeals.
In principle, an automated system might be able to always make sense of all these records. In practice, it fails to consistently do so at present.
Digital status services have struggled with multiple records from the day they went live in July 2021. Those who applied to upgrade from the temporary pre-settled status to the permanent settled status could only view or evidence their pending application, rather than their lawful status. Following enquiries, the Home Office explained that the system’s algorithmic logic was at the time set to ‘overwrite old statuses with a new one’ as the department ‘believed this would be the most relevant one to display.’ The logic was only changed following ‘feedback’ from status holders who were not able to evidence their current rights.
When other immigration routes were brought into the scope of online checks in April 2022, the system would display an EUSS refusal for someone who had been refused under the EUSS, but who had some years left on a valid visa they held in parallel. Legally, they were lawfully resident, but the online system claimed otherwise. More recently, evidence emerged to suggest that applicants granted status after tribunal appeals may still only view or prove the original refusal, and not the status granted, depending on the way they log into the online service.
The online status can glitch, and so can the user profile. As the Home Office admitted, status holders whose photos held in the Immigration and Asylum Biometric Store (IABS) do not meet the current quality standards may see it missing from their online account. And if there are connectivity issues between the IABS and digital status services, online status is altogether inaccessible, as it cannot be shared without a photo.
An even worse glitch occurs when profiles of two different people get mixed up by the system. In one of several reported cases, the user could share their photo, but it was entangled with someone else’s name and someone else’s visa expiry date – instead of their own indefinite leave to remain. It took the Home Office three months to resolve that glitch, while the status holder missed out on jobs and suffered great distress.
All this seems to be happening because there is a network of legacy and novel infrastructures behind the unassuming online interface of digital status services (which, by the way, has remained in the beta stage since its launch over two years ago). The Casework Information Database (CID), for example, dates back to 2000. Two newer casework systems also operate in parallel: Pega, which is the default platform for EUSS cases, and Atlas, which was developed to replace the CID. However, reviews, appeals and some other types of casework are still processed on the CID. Therefore, an application refused initially but granted after review will have been processed on two different systems.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In response to a freedom of information request in 2015, the Home Office disclosed it was using 7 different immigration caseworking systems. A follow up request last year revealed the Home Office operates ‘in excess of 90’ such systems at present.
To navigate that complexity, the Home Office developed the Person Centric Data Platform. The stated aim was to enable ‘case management and data sharing across immigration services centred on a person rather than their different applications’ which can be dispersed in multiple caseworking systems.
Nonetheless, new glitches of digital status keep being reported. Some status holders can log in to their online account, so their access credentials are recognised by a front-end system, but they are unable to view their status, suggesting there is a problem with a back-end system – or systems. An error message says, ‘we cannot find your current status in this service.’ And other status holders can log in and view their status, but the system glitches when they try to share status with someone else.
The Home Office claims that ‘unlike a physical document, immigration status information accessible online cannot be lost, stolen or tampered with.’ This is true in the sense that status holders never hold any proof of their status in the first place, so they cannot lose it, tamper with it, or have it stolen. But when their status vanishes into the thin air of cloud computing, they do lose it, and they lose the legal rights associated with it.
By Dr Kuba Jabłonowski, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Bristol.