The modernization of technology and processes along with keeping the agency on a solid financial footing and retaining staff are critical to improving efficiency while pulling the agency out of its recent history of crippling backlogs, according to the new strategic plan released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The release of the FY 2023-2026 plan comes after the agency said in its FY 2022 Progress Report that it is “turning the tide on its pending caseload” and has stopped its backlog from getting any larger “through an ongoing hiring surge and drive to find new efficiencies in case processing.” More than a million new U.S. citizens were welcomed by USCIS in FY 2022, with the pending caseload returning to a normal level for immigrant visa applicants awaiting Employment Authorization Documents renewal.
That report credited innovation and using “every workforce, policy, and operational tool” at the agency’s disposal” as key to reducing the backlog of applications and processing times after reduced agency capacity during COVID-19 lockdowns. So far this year, USCIS has proposed a new fees schedule — fees are the source of about 96 percent of the agency’s funding — including tacking on biometrics costs, implemented the final phase of the premium processing expansion for EB-1 and EB-2 Form I-140 Petitions and announced March expansion to certain F-1 students, and introduced a redesigned green card with enhanced security features.
While moving forward with initiatives such as digitization — advances that the CIS Ombudsman said “cannot come soon enough” in last summer’s annual report to Congress — USCIS grants lawful permanent residence to more than 2,100 people and issues nearly 5,900 green cards each day on average. The agency also saw its mettle and resources tested with recent resettlement programs in which more than 6,250 refugee applicants from Afghanistan were interviewed last fiscal year and more than 82,000 Ukrainians and their immediate family members were paroled into the United States under the Uniting for Ukraine process.
The agency also fielded nearly 180,000 inquiries from Congress last fiscal year, a 150 percent increase over previous annual averages.
“The work of USCIS makes the possibility of America a reality for immigrants from around the world, the communities and economies they join and support, and the nation as a whole,” USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou said. “USCIS is reducing barriers to immigration benefits and services — and we have much more to do to achieve the Biden-Harris Administration’s vision for our nation’s immigration system, one that is based on trust, strength, inclusion, integrity, and accessibility.”
The new strategic plan is centered around three main goals: strengthening the immigration system through policies, regulations, strategies, processes, and communications support; investing in the agency’s workforce with an eye on attracting, recruiting, training, and retaining a diverse, flexible, and resilient workforce; and promoting effective and efficient financial management and stewardship.
In February 2022, Jaddou released a new mission statement for the agency — “USCIS upholds America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve” — and outlined five priorities: strengthen the agency’s fiscal health and management, increase hiring and improve employee morale, promote efficiency in USCIS adjudications, deliver on the humanitarian mission of USCIS, and strengthen public engagement and improve customer service.
The first goal of strengthening the immigration system includes reviewing regulations and policy documents “to identify and remove barriers for those we serve,” the strategy says, along with assessing “all forms used to apply for immigration benefits, with a goal of eliminating unnecessary, redundant questions and reducing the complexity of forms.” Enhancing the customer experience will include modernization of the USCIS Contact Center and establishing “secure online accounts as the customer’s centralized channel for interacting with USCIS about their case, regardless of whether they file via paper or electronically.” USCIS will also “leverage partnerships with key stakeholders for broader dissemination of information, especially in harder-to-reach communities, about USCIS’ services to the public” and develop E-Verify Next Gen to integrate the E-Verify and Form I-9 experiences and streamline the employment verification process.
Increased staffing and technological deployments, including more videoconferencing for interviews, are intended to improve the efficiency of casework processes and improve equity and fairness in adjudication. A whole-of-government approach to promoting naturalization will “reduce undue barriers throughout the naturalization process through policy, operational, and other improvements” such as using a scalable video-based solution to remotely conduct interviews and administer the oath to service members wherever they are stationed. Security enhancements including “implementing a risk framework analysis model applicable to different form types to evaluate historical filings to identify significant trends” and redesigning key documents are intended to prevent and detect potential fraud and ensure applicants are well-vetted.
The second goal focuses on developing an enterprise-wide strategic hiring plan, modernization and expansion of training curriculums, improving technology and tools with employee retention in mind, incorporating workplace and work schedule flexibilities, and ensuring the safety and continuity of the workforce in emergencies “through proactive safety, security, threat, risk management, and preparedness and resilience programs.” USCIS will also “develop a formal and well-promoted approach to employee engagement, which better involves employees in process improvements that directly impact their work and provides employees with opportunities to contribute to agency innovation and to their well-being.”
The third goal focusing on the agency’s fiscal health aims to “ensure that the agency has the resources to responsibly manage its existing workload and execute key priorities” through implementing and evaluating a multi-year budget plan and process, using “customized recruiting and hiring strategies that incorporate historical and realtime data about attrition,” and transforming personnel security vetting under the Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative.
To modernize IT infrastructure, USCIS intends to focus on evolving its cloud hosting environment and improving network performance to support remote work in a distributed environment. “To increase the accuracy and consistency of data shared between USCIS’ electronic case management systems, intake processes, and other government systems, USCIS will lead its partners to develop and effectively implement data standards,” the strategy continues. “The desired outcome is accurate and consistent data across federal immigration case management systems and databases, and improved ease of data sharing among key government partners.”
“A new data protection strategy, USCIS’ Enterprise Data Security Architecture, will identify sensitive data elements requiring protection. This approach will mature the agency’s data security posture and will enhance authentication (access), authorization (roles), confidentiality (encryption), integrity (change approval), and auditing for all of USCIS’ data.”
USCIS said it will also develop and implement a unified strategy to digitize and prioritize paper documents submitted to the agency, improve agency access to biographic and biometric data needed to process immigration applications and petitions, enhance cybersecurity through zero-trust principles, and “establish high-quality program evaluation, data analytics capability, and evidence building capacity and protocols to better assess operational and strategic effectiveness and support evidence-based decision making.”
“Our new strategic plan will be our roadmap to realize our own promise as an agency of transparency and responsiveness,” Jaddou wrote at the outset of the document.