The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is not only aware of the backlogs that many applicants suffer, but is committed to find solutions to tackle this problem. Last month, the USCIS Director Ms. Ur Jaddou, and the CIS Ombudsman, Ms. Phyllis Coven, sat down for a rare Fireside chat. This one-hour long conversation was an interesting exchange of ideas between the two leaders that left a few important information points that I tried to summarize here.
USCIS Director talked about the most pressing challenges she found when she took office
With a little over one year tenure at USCIS, the Director highlighted these as the main challenges facing the office:
- USCIS is coming from the biggest backlog problem in the recent history of the agency.
- The agency is still suffering the consequences of the financial issues faced during the recent years, with a one-year hiring freeze that is now over but continues to reverberate. In fact, hiring new employees is one of USCIS’s priorities now, together with motivating current workers to keep them engaged and employed.
- Increasing efficiency in USCIS processes is one of the major challenges to be addressed.
The backlog problems: a snowball effect throughout the agency’s work
The Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, Phyllis Coven, highlighted some of the work her office has done to bring up issues and recommendations to USCIS:
- Study on advanced parole
- Process for expedited requests
- Extending period of employment authorizations
The USCIS Direct, Ur Jaddou, explained why the backlog issue is a snowball effect in the agency. On one hand, the long queues cause enermous stress and anxiety on applicants and their families. For the agency this means a higher volume of calls to their costumer center and this gives less time to solve other costumer’s issues. Additionally, USCIS attorneys are busier with litigation derived from the long wait times and are not available to do other important tasks. Longer wait times also mean an increased number of requests for extension of advanced parole (documents issued for people to travel). Therefore, it is very apparent that USCIS is the first interested party on reducing the backlogs and solving this snowball issue. This is great news for all the applicants and potential petitioners since USCIS is committed to improve the processing times very quickly!
More employment-based visa number available on the aftermath of COVID
The USCIS Director explained how in the aftermath of COVID many consulates remained closed or not fully operational for prolonged periods of time. This caused that many visa numbers, particularly for family-based green cards, remained unused. The Department of State (responsible for consular processing) transferred the unused visa numbers to the US Department of Homeland Security so USCIS could use the visa number for Adjustment of Status of employment-based green cards. This caused a 2X increase in the number of processes completed for adjustment of status by USCIS.
How USCIS is attacking the backlog problem
The Direction of USCIS provided some insights on how the agency is tackling the problem of long wait times. The goal set by USCIS is to reduce the cycle time for most forms to 6 months by the end of the fiscal year (end of September 2023). This is in line with the information published by the agency back in March 2022. Ms. Jaddou mentioned the following measures taken by USCIS:
- Hiring new employees. This is fixing the problems generated by the 1 year hiring freeze that was recently lifted. Ms. Jaddou said tha 85% of the attrition has already been covered.
- Increased efficiency. More electronic filing and electronic processing.
- Strong financial footing.
- Security for employees, which in turn impacts positively the retention and motivation of the workforce.
- More resources for processes. The US Congress provided some additional funding.
USCIS fees are likely to increase soon
On the negative side (for prospective applicants), both participants highlighted how fees have been constant for six years now. Considering inflation rates and that Congress does not typically provide additional funding for emergency expenses associated to humanitarian programs, these fees are likely to increase. USCIS is 97% fee-funded and some of the modernization programs, increase in salaries and cost of contracts, make a fee increase extremely likely in my opinion based on this Fireside Chat.
Even though this is not great news for USCIS costumers, it is a call for action for those considering applying. The sooner the application goes out the less likely to be hit by higher fees. On the other hand, it is good to keep in mind that higher fees could mean shorter processing times for everyone, something very desirable considering the recent years of extremely long lines.