JANUARY 29: Immigrants wait for their citizenship interviews at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), district office on January 29, 2013 in New York City. Some 118,000 immigrants applied for U.S. citizenship in the New York City dictrict in 2012. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
JANUARY 29: Immigrants wait for their citizenship interviews at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), district office on January 29, 2013 in New York City. Some 118,000 immigrants applied for U.S. citizenship in the New York City…

What is causing the multi-million applicant backlog at USCIS?


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A backlog of more than two million cases has formed at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Staff at USCIS, along with several experts, testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee entitled, “Policy Changes and Processing Delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

According to Zoe Lofgrun, a Democrat from California, there is currently a backlog of applications at USCIS of 2.4 million. 

While everyone acknowledged the problem, there were numerous perspectives on the causes.

History of Chaos at USCIS
One area upon which there was bi-partisan agreement is that USCIS has a challenging mission with a history of bureaucratic challenges. 

“US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), like all government agencies that dispense government benefits, has the challenge of balancing the imperative to correctly and fairly adjudicate applications with the expectations for the applications to be adjudicated in a reasonable time period,” stated Jessica Vaughan, the Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), in her written remarks. 

Anecdotes from politicians, both Republican and Democrat, showed that USCIS has historically had difficulty managing the process. 

Congressman Lou Correa is a Democrat from California, and he described helping his uncle fill out a citizenship application years ago. 

Correa said the application was lost twice before he went to an office in person, more than two years into the process. 

Correa said he was told they’d lost half the application for the third time. The USCIS employee had Correa fill it out at the office that day. 

“Three and a half years later we finally made him a US citizen,” Correa said. 

Congressman Kelly Armstrong is a Republican from North Carolina, and he described helping his now wife fill out her citizenship application in 2004. 

“The process in and of itself is daunting, and this is coming from two pretty well educated people. I had just graduated law school and she was in law school, but the bureaucracy is mind numbing.”

Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is a Democrat from Florida. She was born in Ecuador and became a naturalized citizen.

“I remember going through the process and so grateful that I went through the process, but it did take years before we were eligible and allowed to become a US citizen,” she said.

Perspective of USCIS
USCIS sent three witnesses to the hearing: Donald Neufeld, the Associate Director of  Service Center Operations at USCIS; Michael Valverde, the Deputy Associate Director of Field Operations Directorate at USCIS; and Michael Hoefer, the Chief of the Office of Performance and Quality at USCIS.

All are career employees and not political appointees. 

The three stated the reason for the backlog was an unprecedented level of new applications, which was combined with a more comprehensive process under the Trump administration. 

Currently, USCIS receives 1,000,000 new applications yearly, while historically new applications numbered 700,000 to 800,000, Vaughan said those numbers were based on USCIS data. 

Valverde said that employee productivity is up; he said that in 2018, USCIS naturalized 757,000 new citizens which was a five-year high.

“Unfortunately, backlogs are not new to USCIS. Internal and external factors have affected pending workloads across the life of the agency,” Valverde stated in his opening remarks. 

Neufeld said there were several factors driving backlogs: spikes in receipts, statutory changes, workload demands, application spikes due to fee increases, and staffing shortages. 

Hoefer, in his opening remarks, noted that the current backlog is not the highest, having topped out at 3.6 million in 2013. 

Hoefer said that a series of initiatives, including appropriations fundings, starting in 2003 reduced the backlog to less than 50,000 by 2010, “but it has grown every year since, with 2016 and 2017 being the primary drivers. 

The backlog grew from 634,000 in 2015 to 1,100,000 in 2016 and to 2,300,000 in 2017. 

Hoefer said a unique set of factors contributed to the backlog; applications continued to rise after the election, despite falling historically; applications continued to rise, Hoefer said, even after a fee increase, also an anomaly, took effect in 2017. 

Democratic Argument
Democrats argued that while there was indeed an increase in work, this was combined with wrongheaded policy changes by the Trump administration which unnecessarily increased the work. 

Congresswoman Victoria Escobar is a Democrat from Texas. 

“We have seen a terrible backlog that has been exacerbated by policy,” she said. “In October of 2018, USCIS published a notice of proposal for rule making that would dramatically heighten the standard of whether an individual is likely to become a public charge.”

Escobar pointed to this rule as one example of wrongheaded rulemaking exacerbating the problem. 

Mucarsel-Powell said, “Earlier this year, the administration announced that USCIS planned to close all international field offices. These offices are critical resources in processing refugee applications, family-based visa applications, and other immigration matters.”

Marketa Lindt is President of American Immigration Lawyers Association and a partner in the law firm, Sidley and Austin, where she specializes in business immigration law. 

During her opening remarks, she identified three policies which have exacerbated the problem: 2017 policy mandating an in-person interview for everyone applying for a green card through their employer; a 2017 policy that requires USCIS to re-adjudicate every application for an extension of status, “even where the same employer is applying for the same employee for the same job, under the same visa type and where there has been meaningful change in circumstances,” and USCIS data shows “significant spikes in requests for evidence” and these requests, Lindt said, were often trivial and unnecessary. 

Perspective of Republicans
Republicans argued that the backlog is due to unprecedented applications from Obama era policies and that Trump’s USCIS policies are designed to make the process more thorough and efficient. 

Ken Buck is a Republican from Colorado and he noted that wait times began increasing after DACA. 

“I wish I had heard the same concerns and outrage from my colleagues when President Obama’s DACA program resulted in long adjudication wait times for immediate relative green applications, among other immigration benefits,” he said. 

Vaughan also said the nexus of longer wait times began with DACA.

“Advocacy groups have been silent on a policy change that is most responsible for the backlogs before the election cycle and that is DACA,” said Vaughan “Since 2012, DACA has added more than 2.4 million applications to the USCIS workload.”

“This afternoon we’ve heard a lot of criticism of some changes that the Trump administration has made to improve the screening of application and to address the fraud and the gaming of the system. Most of these like the interview requirement and the issuance of NTAs are just common sense.” she added. “Others like ending the deference policy and allowing for the refusal of frivolous applications from the get go help unclog the system so that the legitimate advocate are not disadvantaged.”

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