The Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ recently released it’s annual Ombudsman report, finding that the agency has continued to improve its anti-fraud initiatives, as well as revised its overarching electronic case management and benefits goals. However, the report details several areas where the agency needs to improve. A backlog of affirmative asylum applications and confusion over the background check process is hindering the agency from reaching its full potential. The Ombudsman report details these accomplishments and problem areas, as well as other issues the agency addressed in 2017.
USCIS Anti-Fraud Initiatives
Combating fraud is central to USCIS’ mission to run an efficient and secure immigration benefits system. Combating fraud helps keep unscrupulous actors from obtaining immigration benefits and preserves agency resources for legitimate requests. USCIS is continuing to work on combating fraud in its systems.
Over the past six years, the Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate doubled its authorized staffing from 756 positions in fiscal year (FY) 2012 to 1,548 positions in FY 2018.
In 2017, as part of FDNS’ move toward a “risk-based” anti-fraud model, it implemented a targeted site visit and verification program (TSVVP) focused on visits to H-1B employer worksites where fraud may be more likely to occur.
Challenges in USCIS’ transition to an electronic case filing system have limited FDNS’ ability to combat fraud, and requests for case assistance submitted to the ombudsman suggest that a small number of cases dealing with fraud investigations remain pending for significant lengths of time.
FDNS is improving is metrics for measuring case processing, but would benefit from the electronic case processing system envisioned by USCIS’ transformation project.
In 2017, USCIS revised its electronic case management and benefits processing goals. It now prioritizes the development of core capabilities, which cut across all form types, and the achievement of broader transformation goals.
Additionally, USCIS consolidated the former Office of Transformation Coordination into the Office of Information Technology (OIT), which reports to the USCIS Director.
In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General verified that USCIS had made improvements to its production and delivery of green cards.
And while stakeholders reported the improvements in these systems, they continue to voice concerns over a range of issues dealing with the Electronic Immigration System.
Background checks are essential for maintaining the integrity of our immigration system; however, the process can be confusing for applicants.
Over the past several years, USCIS’ workload has increased substantially, which provides additional challenges for improving integrity and efficiency. This has placed increased demand on various aspects of the immigration system.
In response to Executive Order 13780, USCIS increased its screening of certain applicants and plans to expand this heightened scrutiny to other types of applications.
Affirmative Asylum Backlog
As of March 31, 2018, USCIS had well over 300,000 affirmative asylum applications pending a final decision from the Asylum Division. As the number of applications grew, so did the backlog of cases pending final decisions.
While the backlog can be traced to the growing number of individuals filing asylum claims, the cause of the backlog stems from several converging factors, including spikes in credible fear claims and a rapid increase in affirmative asylum filings.
USCIS has taken a series of steps to reduce its pending caseload, but despite hiring new staff, changing processes and opening additional offices, reducing the backlog will be an ongoing challenge.
EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program
While the EB-5 Program remains attractive to foreign investors, many stakeholders, including members of Congress, have increasingly voiced concerns regarding program integrity and possible fraud and abuse.
Stakeholders have criticized Targeted Employment Area (TEA) gerrymandering, which has led to a concentration of investments in wealthy urban areas rather than rural, high-unemployment areas as originally intended.
USCIS has sought to address these concerns through a range of reforms, including through regulations issued in January 2017 that increase program oversight of TEA. The effect these reforms will have on the integrity of the program remain to be seen.