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Friday, February 3, 2023

USCIS Must Focus on Digital Modernization Despite Financial Challenges, Says Ombudsman

The impact of COVID-19 on the ability of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process applicants and bring in revenue underscored the agency’s need for expanded electronic filing and processing capabilities, increased outreach with stakeholders, and improved coordination with other government agencies, the CIS ombudsman said in the office’s annual report to Congress.

Ombudsman Phyllis A. Coven wrote at the beginning of the report that USCIS “faces unprecedented challenges this year on virtually every front,” from the financial strain inflicted by the pandemic to application and petition backlogs.

“We applaud the numerous innovations the agency put in place in response to the pandemic — from drive-through oath ceremonies to remote interviews — and urge the agency to continue identifying opportunities for efficiencies without undermining integrity,” she said.

The report encourages the digital shift at USCIS and building upon the virtual measures that helped the agency get by when offices had to remain closed. Coven added that her office would undertake similar modernization efforts.

“Our office should serve as an ambassador for the use of USCIS’ electronic tools and help customers successfully navigate their own immigration experience,” she said. “We also are working diligently to expand access to the office’s services, particularly for vulnerable and underserved populations, such as those with limited English proficiency and individuals applying for humanitarian benefits. This will be a continued focus for our office and will greatly enhance our understanding of the issues and their impact on the public.”

Coven said that the goals of President Biden’s executive order, which directs identification of and action on barriers that could impede someone seeking immigration benefits, “squarely align with our office’s mission” and “invites enhanced collaboration within the agency on many fronts.”

USCIS closed its offices to most of its staff in mid-March 2020, handling only emergency cases in person until reopening on a limited basis that summer and facing a massive backlog of interviews.

“Although the agency was well-versed in telework and file tracking, the size and scope of the adjudication demands outside the office were unprecedented. Enabling officers tasked with adjudication (Immigration Service Officers, known as ISOs or officers) to access and return paper files in a safe, socially distanced manner presented unique challenges,” the report said. “With only 10 percent of its forms available for online processing (almost 20 percent of all submissions online in FY 2020), this became a substantial operational challenge. With COVID-19, the number of staff needed to perform these necessary file administration and tracking duties was diminished, but the work itself expanded exponentially.”

The agency’s receipts did recover to near pre-pandemic levels by the end of fiscal year 2020, when the agency took in 12 percent fewer receipts than projected and 5 percent fewer than in FY2019.

“The pandemic’s closures, social-distancing measures, delayed reopenings, the continued hiring freeze, and the corresponding inability to pivot to more premium processing, left the agency vulnerable to rapidly increasing processing times as receipts returned to near pre-pandemic levels,” the report said. “Not surprisingly, those applications and petitions needing in-person contact, in interviews or biometrics, have been more adversely impacted.”

In the post-COVID environment, backlogs “continue at record levels” and the agency is still running at a revenue loss. “Fees that reflect the actual costs of the agency, representing sufficient revenue for current operations, are months, if not years, away,” the report noted. “…Without a significant infusion of funding, whether from customer filings or from Congress, USCIS is not well-placed to overcome its fiscal challenges.”

The CIS Ombudsman recommended that the agency not solely rely on fees and re-examine its funding and staffing models, that pandemic best practices that “demonstrated the best of the entrepreneurial creativity of the USCIS workforce and have saved the agency money” be continued in the future, that a “true strategic” plan to eliminate the backlog be developed and implemented, and that the agency “resist the temptation to divert significant money from the agency’s digital strategy.”

USCIS should also “engage in a comprehensive education campaign on its e-tools,” advertising “in more detail and to more diverse communities those functions applicants can use to help themselves.”

“This would help eliminate duplication of effort, help conserve resources for those truly needing them, but also grant ownership to those most impacted,” the report said, adding that “a robust public engagement effort to anticipate and manage expectations, including the sharing of setbacks, as well as gains, will mitigate at least some of the adverse impact on the filing community as USCIS works to bring itself fully online.”

The report notes that more than 15 years after USCIS launched its transition away from a paper-based system “the agency still receives, transfers, and processes thousands of paper filings daily” though the digitization effort made progress necessitated by the pandemic.

Early this year, USCIS informed the CIS Ombudsman that 40 percent of all immigration benefit filings are now processed end-to-end electronically, the report said, while an additional 20 percent of filings are handled with some combination of paper and electronic processing.

Concerns about the pace of this modernization noted by the ombudsman are a lack of transparency with stakeholders, confusion over how the agency is prioritizing which forms to take digital, a lack of engagement with case-management and forms vendors, and competing demands for future premium processing fees.

The ombudsman recommended that USCIS “implement outreach and education to encourage customers to file online” — only 33 percent are doing so when the option is available — and prioritizing the development of high impact and/or high volume immigration benefit filings. The agency should also continue working to break down language barriers for those with limited English proficiency.

The report encourages interim measures such as increased use of electronic communications between officers and benefit filers or their representatives, establishing a central portal for Form G-28 (Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney or Representative) that allows legal representatives to submit electronically, and expanding access for credit card payments for all forms submitted online or through USCIS’ lockboxes.

“While the agency has made much progress since beginning its digital strategy journey, it has proven a bumpy one. Current Congressional attention to the issue is an opportunity to recommit the agency’s efforts to achieving the goal with all deliberate speed,” the report stated. “While no one can predict whether the agency will have the same need that full online processing would have met during the pandemic, the need to maximize processing resources will continue to be a significant driver of its digital strategy.”

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, antisemitism 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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