By Anayat Durrani
An hour-long conversation between U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur Jaddou and Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman) Phyllis Coven recently revealed efforts to speed up processing times and reduce backlogs.
The fireside chat on Sept. 21 included discussion about challenges and accomplishments from fiscal year FY 2022 and plans for FY 2023. Apart from processing times and backlogs, Jaddou addressed customer service, funding and congressional appropriations. Coven addressed their 2022 Annual Report to Congress, recommendations on USCIS’ fee-for-service funding model and the kinds of assistance the office provides to the public.
Felicia Escobar Carrillo, Chief of Staff at USCIS, noted some of the accomplishments in the last 12 months, which include the publication of a temporary final rule that temporarily increases the automatic extension period for EAD categories from up to 180 days to up to 540 days. She says this will help some 420,000 workers stay on the job while USCIS processes their EAD applications.
“We know this benefits not just those individuals and their families, but their employers and our greater economy and the communities in which they interact and live in,” said Carillo.
USCIS on path to connect with communities around the country
Carillo said they have stepped up their national engagement posture and local engagement posture and have held some 114 national engagement and more than 3600 local, virtual, and in-person engagements with more than 151,000 attendees.
Jaddou said when she joined USCIS, it was during the pandemic and that things have since improved.
“I walked in at a time that the agency is experiencing, continues to experience and at the time, it still was one of the highest backlogs this agency has ever had,” said Jaddou. “I also walked in about a year and some just after financial crisis of the agency that caused a hiring freeze, so attrition was not replaced. So a pretty difficult time.”
She says the agency is constantly looking for ways to assure people that USCIS is on the right foot and headed in the right direction. She says the agency is working on becoming more efficient to try to get ahead of the backlog.
“It is enormous. It is a challenge. It has caused incredible spiked processing times that I know everybody is experiencing. But we have a lot of ideas and a lot of solutions, many of them that are already being put into place today,” Jaddou said. “So it is my hope and my goal to get us back to normal order.”
USCIS comments on the impact of the visa backlog
CIS Ombudsman Coven said the theme of their annual report in 2022 was the avalanche of backlogs.
“And what that was really about was that we came to recognize that the backlogs themselves had sort of a snowball impact, that when people were waiting longer than they should to get their cards indicating their status, they still needed to work, they still needed to be able to verify their employment they needed to travel and those needs created for the agency sort of secondary workloads or collateral workloads and so that the detriment of the backlogs is not only on the customers but also on the agency,” said Coven.
She said their report this year was on how to approach some of those pain points, both for the customers and for the agency. For example, they did a study about issues associated with applying for advanced parole for those who need to go overseas for an emergency before their card has come out, as well as the process for accessing expedite requests.
She said she hopes their recommendations “can help people get on with their lives and relieve some of the anxiety, right, which is caused by the longer processing times.”
Jaddou said every delay has meant someone calling their contact center, and therefore someone else having to wait longer. She says every delay might also result in litigation.
“And now we have our attorneys and our Office of Chief Counsel busy with litigation, instead of focused on perhaps looking at questions of policy and legality to make improvements,” said Jaddou. “So now they're just focused on litigation. We have our offices overwhelmed across the country, with requests to extend, and emergency advanced paroles to extend. We have people who are looking for emergency actions on their employment authorizations, which, again, all of this, it's a snowball effect.”
Jaddou said all of the pain that individuals experience in USCIS not being able to get to their cases in a timely and efficient manner, “ends up resulting in so many other parts of our agency as well being overwhelmed with resources that were never created for that.”
She says the contact center, customer service, is overwhelmed because of these reasons. She said customer service is working on making sure people receive answers to their requests in a timely manner.
“Of course, with all the integrity, the security is necessary, but ensuring that it is not, you know, a year long, 18 month, two month, two year process, this has to be done in a timely fashion,” Jaddou said.
How USCIS is dealing with visa processing
Coven said they have prioritized their cases and said they really try to be very transparent with the public about what they can be helpful on and where they can really make a difference. This has had to do with people aging out, and losing the opportunity to get a benefit because of age, when people have had a problem getting a secure document like employment authorization or a green card.
“And another big area where we've done a lot of work this year is in making sure sometimes there's a problem with the National Visa Center receiving notice of approved petitions that are necessary for consular processing,” said Coven.
Jaddou said she was happy to report that the USCIS and the State Department are headed to being able to issue every single visa for this fiscal year.
“As a result of COVID and the fact that consulates have not gone to full opening as they were pre-COVID, a lot of the family based visas, many of them were not issued overseas, for family based petitioners instead rolled over to this year in our employment based system,” says Jaddou. “And we at USCIS process, most of the employment based visa numbers as adjustment of status that we receive. And so we received way more than we have ever done.”
Jaddou said they have adjusted a lot more than they have ever done, 50% more, and added, “so taking all that we learned in the last fiscal year and applying it to this fiscal year, we were able to surpass even that achievement.”
USCIS and Cycle Time goals
Coven said she recognizes the pain caused by the years of waiting and many people continue to wait “because of the caps that Congress has placed in this on this program and for that matter visas, with regard to employment based and even family based.” She said that being able to give people insight into the limited number of visas that are available and how they are allocated by country under the law is very helpful.
“We've introduced some Cycle Time goals. And we are hoping for most of our major forms six months and some under than that, that timeframe by the end of the coming fiscal year. And I have to say that we're on our way. So we are already showing progress,” said Jaddou.
She said for the N-400, the Application for Naturalization, in December of 2021, the Cycle Time was 13 months and it was brought down to 9.6 months in July 2022. She said they are seeing that a little in other forms as well.
“We need the time to get through it. It is a big, big number 8.5 million pending over 5 million that are beyond those six months, those Cycle Time goals. So we have a lot of work,” says Jaddou.
Jaddou also addressed customer service, citing the example a I-90 renewal, Green Card renewal.
“When there's a delay, and perhaps it's going to expire, you need an appointment, you have to go to a field office. So just imagine the resource, let alone the pain of the individual of having to call, make the appointment, go in person, get a stamp, so that they can have an extended period while we're adjudicating considering the backlog,” said Jaddou.
She said the agency is considering way to extend the period of time in which they're auto extended for a period of time, so they have people having to call in and make those appointments in the first place and to free up those resources.
She said they’re also looking at the idea of a stakeholder inquiry mailbox for systemic issues, to ensure that the wait time for a phone call coming in is down to less than 10 minutes. They’re working on how to improve the automated systems so callers are routed to the right person.
USCIS considering electronic filing system
Jaddou said she’s really excited about their strategy to get the USCIS fully electronic in which an individual can completely process online. She said 18% of their filings are currently online and 13 benefit forms are currently available for e-filing. She said the issue is that not everybody's using it. She said 46% of those forms available through e-filing are only submitted through e-filing, but people are still choosing paper.
“We understand, for example, the G-28, the attorney form, and that handshake between the attorney and their client is one of the issues, the ability for the representatives for the attorneys to have instead of having to refill out those forms, they have their own case management systems having their case management systems be able to communicate with ours. So these are all challenges we're working through,” says Jaddou.
Jaddou says going electronic achieves so many efficiencies and improves the human error issue. She says the agency is working to streamline the process to get everything done in one place online.
“This is going to be extremely helpful, efficient, cost efficient. And I think we'll see better results. But we know we need to get to also representative accounts, there are a lot of issues here. But these are things that we have prioritized. And we're very focused on,” said Jaddou.
Coven said right now they are in the process of thinking through their priorities for next year, regarding what areas they we want to research and study.
“I know one of them has to do with an issue that stakeholders have been raising regarding RFEs and whether or not they're getting sort of redundant and unnecessary requests for additional evidence,” said Coven. “And that's an area that we want to study we know next year.”
USCIS employs more than 20,000 people, operates in more than 200 offices and other facilities throughout the U.S. and abroad, and has an annual budget averaging over $4 billion since 2018, per a report by CIS.