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Digitization Strides at USCIS ‘Cannot Come Soon Enough’ with ‘Severe’ Processing Backlog, CIS Ombudsman Says

Report says process to expedite U nonimmigrant visas "is proving to be a backlog management success" and could be emulated in other programs.

While “there is still much more work to be accomplished” on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ digital strategy, the CIS ombudsman said in the office’s annual report to Congress that the agency’s digitization is “nearing an inflection point” that “cannot come soon enough, as many of the disruptions to USCIS’ operations, lengthening processing times, and growing backlogs were related to the agency’s failure to fully digitize before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020.”

Last year’s report noted the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process applicants and bring in revenue. Ombudsman Phyllis A. Coven wrote at the beginning of this year’s report that “snowball effects” from the pandemic have affected applicants, families, employers, and the agency.

“While USCIS has taken numerous steps to address these issues, and we are heartened by its stated commitment to reduce these barriers, more must be done. Simply put, applicants are not only losing valuable time in their immigration journey, they are losing jobs, livelihoods, and the ability to travel,” Coven wrote. “As the Report details, the path for seeking expedited or emergency benefits is less than clear, leading to additional inquiries and requests. These snowball effects also compound the agency’s work, further diverting USCIS’ finite resources to customer service, congressional inquiries, case assistance requests, and duplicative filings.”

USCIS “needs the ability to hire and train additional staff to meet processing surges; plan for and attend to its many humanitarian obligations without passing those costs on to other applicants; provide true customer service; and complete its ambitious digital strategy to further streamline the adjudicative process,” she added, noting that “a steady stream of funding to give USCIS flexibility would alleviate burdens on all filers.”

The report says the agency has made efforts to relieve the impacts of backlog issues that are the most “severe in recent memory” but the effects “multiply, doing real harm to stakeholders and adversely impacting applicants and petitioners every day.”

“To fully address the backlogs, USCIS must also continue to address their consequences,” the report states.

The CIS Ombudsman called for more flexibility in renewing employment authorization including building on existing automatic extension periods “to allow for uninterrupted work authorization while waiting for USCIS to adjudicate a renewal EAD application,” providing “better options for nonimmigrant spouses to renew their employment authorization,” allowing applicants to file for renewals earlier and issuing renewals with validity periods that begin when the original EAD expires, continuing to expedite EAD renewals for workers “in certain occupations in the national interest,” and further exploring and augmenting the use of technology, including online filing and machine learning, to automate EAD processing.

The report also calls for reducing barriers to travel before applicants’ Form I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) is adjudicated, and “stop considering a pending Form I-131 for advance parole to be abandoned by travel abroad.”

“The expedite request caseload has consequently increased, further diverting resources within the agency and making it challenging for USCIS to process these requests efficiently,” the report continues, recommending that USCIS “establish a centralized process for expedite requests, create a new form for submitting expedite requests, develop standardized guidance about the requirements and process; and engage in robust data collection to maintain accountability.”

USCIS reported that there are more than 8 million active accounts in the agency’s online portal myUSCIS, through which the agency received about 1,325,000 online-filed benefit requests in FY 2021.

“Although USCIS has not yet implemented automation, machine processing, or artificial intelligence tools and programming on a large-scale basis, the promise exists that it will do so successfully in the future,” the report states. “The CIS Ombudsman is resolved to monitor progress on this issue in the coming years.”

The CIS Ombudsman recommended that USCIS “make application programming interface (API) integration and digitization of Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver, immediate priorities, develop and initiate a targeted, nationwide promotion campaign to encourage more filers to create and use a myUSCIS account to file online and communicate with USCIS, and examine how it might better incentivize customers to submit their filings online, including potentially increasing the current $10 filing fee discount.”

The ombudsman’s report also reiterated a recommendation made last year: “Create a central portal and system to receive and forward Form G-28, Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney or Accredited Representative, to the USCIS office that has the relevant benefit file.”

USCIS implemented the Bona Fide Determination (BFD) process on June 14, 2021, to allow the agency to provide eligible U nonimmigrant visa petitioners (victims who assist law enforcement with the criminal investigation) with employment authorization and deferred action more expeditiously. The CIS Ombudsman said the process “is proving to be a backlog management success” and could be emulated in other programs.

“While USCIS ultimately requires additional revenue to address resource constraints, this year’s Annual Report contains more immediate recommendations to reduce pain points experienced by stakeholders and the agency,” the report says. “They will better allow USCIS to focus resources on adjudications, as opposed to fielding and responding to the cascading stakeholder inquiries and complaints that such processing delays produce.”

Coven said the CIS Ombudsman received 26,097 case assistance requests last year — a 79 percent increase over 2020. “We continue to raise delayed processing times to USCIS as a systemic issue and are optimistic that the agency will reduce processing times across benefit requests, as it has pledged to do,” she said. “We hope to be able to reprioritize these types of case assistance requests when that happens.”

The CIS Ombudsman office held 143 engagements in 2021 with more than 7,500 stakeholders including community and faith-based organizations, universities, national associations, government partners, small businesses, and large companies to gather feedback about their experiences with USCIS.

Coven said USCIS has acted on recommendations from the 2021 report, including extending the receipt notice for Form I-751 (Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence) to provide longer evidence of conditional permanent resident (CPR) status, waiving interviews for certain conditional permanent residents, implementing a risk-based approach to maximize best practices adopted during the pandemic such as video-facilitated interviews, developing a strategic backlog reduction plan, and advancing its digitization strategy.

“USCIS faces challenges ahead as it works to reduce backlogs and processing times. These goals require its full attention,” Coven wrote. “Its strength lies in its people — government servants devoted to the mission of the agency to ‘uphold America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve.’ They cannot achieve these goals without help from Congress in the form of resources; from stakeholders who provide insightful feedback; and from its partners, such as our office, who constructively collaborate to ensure the agency completes its mission fairly and on time.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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