U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processes millions of immigration and naturalization benefit requests each year. On March 18, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS temporarily closed its offices and halted in-person services.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) subsequently conducted an audit to determine the effectiveness of USCIS’ technology systems to provide timely and accurate electronic processing of benefits while offices were closed or operating at reduced capacity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
OIG found that USCIS’ technology systems and infrastructure enabled some electronic processing of benefits to continue from March 2020 through May 2021, despite offices being closed or operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic. USCIS used its Electronic Immigration System to continue electronically processing 17 of the 102 types of benefits it delivers. USCIS also relied on various operational flexibilities, such as virtual interviews and biometrics reuse, to continue benefits delivery during this time. OIG attributes these successes to USCIS’ recent planning efforts to ensure continuity of operations, as well as its ongoing efforts to transition to an electronic processing environment.
However, OIG said that USCIS’ primary operational challenge was its continued reliance on paper files to process and deliver benefits. According to the watchdog, USCIS had limited capability to electronically process more than 80 types of benefits, which still required some manual workflows and paper files to complete cases. Recurring technology performance issues and equipment limitations further constrained USCIS employees’ productivity. OIG attributes these challenges to funding cuts and lost fee revenue that limited spending during this time.
The audit found that these challenges further increased processing times and resulted in a backlog of 3.8 million cases as of May 2021. Although USCIS digitized key benefits in recent years, OIG said it must further eliminate manual workflows and paper file dependency to achieve its 5-year plan to improve benefit processing times.
OIG recommended that the USCIS pandemic plan be updated to incorporate additional technology guidance and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. USCIS concurred and said it will issue a revised Pandemic and Emerging Infectious Disease Workforce Protection Plan by December 30, 2022.