The ombudsman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently published formal recommendations on ways for the USCIS to address systemic issues. The report states that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the existing processing delays for immigration filings. Though the USCIS may not have control over several issues that caused the delays, in some cases, the USCIS policies caused the delays.
In the recommendations, the report addresses the agency’s funding difficulties. These issues have kept the agency from fulfilling its mission to provide customers with consistent, prompt, and fair adjudications. Because the agency does not receive funding from Congress for humanitarian services, it must often decide between systemic needs to determine where funding goes. Further exasperating the USCIS’s ability to address needs is the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to over five million backlogged applications.
One issue the ombudsman mentioned in the report is the fee-for-service funding model on which the USCIS operates. The USCIS derives approximately 97% of its operating budget from the filing fees collected with immigrant applications. Also, when the USCIS predicts the future costs of services for processing applications, the financial modeling uses data from the previous year or two. The agency must also comply with the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) when it proposes changes in its filing fees. The proposal often takes a year and will include the start of the process to when the new rule is published. This timeframe makes it difficult to keep its fees in line with costs.
COVID-19 caused a considerable reduction in filings between March and May 2020, which also meant fewer fees. The significant drop in revenue forced the agency to warn two-thirds of its staff of a furlough twice. The leaves didn’t happen, but the USCIS did implement austerity measures that affected its capacity to fulfill its mission. The report also noted the considerable time it takes to hire, onboard, and train new adjudicators. Additionally, the report stated that the agency fails to consider backlogs when estimating staffing needs.
The ombudsman report further explains how the USCIS does not always meet its targeted processing times because it is understaffed and underfunded. Therefore, the ombudsman recommends the USCIS do the following: “Reengineer its fee review process, including its staffing allocation models, to ensure it fully and proactively projects the amounts needed to meet targeted processing time goals for future processing, as well as backlog adjudications.”
Finally, the report offered recommendations when seeking congressional appropriations. The suggestions include the following: the cost of delivering humanitarian-related immigration benefits and obtaining annual grants specifically to eliminate backlogs; obtaining authorization that allows it to establish a financing mechanism for dealing with unexpected revenue shortfalls and unfunded policy shifts; maintaining adequate staffing to meet its performance obligations, and using its authority to adjust fees annually.
The USCIS is hiring more employees and has requested additional funding from Congress, hopefully reducing processing times and decreasing backlogs.
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