USCIS is the agency charged with administering and providing immigration benefits to foreign nationals. Naturalization, green cards, work authorization, H-1B visas, asylum, family-based immigration, investment visas, cultural exchange programs, foreign doctors, NAFTA professionals, victims of crimes and domestic violence, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and many other benefits are handled directly by the agency. Most of the benefits have been created by statute and require eligibility to be proven with evidence. DHS regulations reinforce that concept.
USCIS aims to adjudicate requests for immigration benefits in a fair, efficient, and timely manner. Unfortunately, USCIS has been unable to meet those expectations; processing times continue to lengthen and the backlog of cases has grown to 2.4 million, a 344% increase since 2014. Accompanying these delays are an increased rate of denials and Requests for Evidence across all benefit requests. These realities are having an impact on those foreign nationals who are waiting for the benefit, as well as the U.S. citizen or U.S. employer that often petitions for these benefits alongside the foreign national (i.e., a U.S. citizen petitioning for a foreign spouse; a U.S. company petitioning for a foreign worker).
Yesterday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship held a hearing to determine the cause of the backlog and lengthened processing times. The Subcommittee is chaired by Z. Lofgren (D-Cal) and includes the following members: P. Jayapal (D-Wash) (no-show), L. Correa (D-Cal), S. Garcia (D-TX), J. Neguse (D-CO), D. Murcarsel-Powell (D-FL), V. Escobar (D-TX), S. Jackson Lee (D-TX), M.G. Scanlon (D-PA), J. Nadler (D-NY), A Biggs (R-AZ), T. McClintock (R-Cal), D. Lesko (R-AZ), K Armstrong (R-ND), G. Steube (R-FL), D. Collins (R-GA), and ranking member K. Buck (R-CO). Appearing before the Subcommittee to testify were USCIS executives Donald Neufeld (Service Center Operations), Michael Valverde (Field Office Operations), and Michael Hoefer (Performance and Quality).
Chairwoman Lofgren stated the purpose of the hearing was to determine if recent policy changes were driving the backlog and if legislative fixes were needed to improve the processing times. While these immigration hearings have been split by party lines and are increasingly dysfunctional, there was a surprising amount of common ground in this particular hearing: all the representatives acknowledged the problem of delays at the agency, but none seemed especially interested in the topic, none had legislative solutions, and none seemed willing to provide more formal oversight of USCIS. Few could be described to have even a basic understanding of processing beyond what was provided by various lobbying groups. While some of the Representatives themselves have had direct experience with USCIS and its problems (Murcarsel-Powell, Armstrong, Scanlan), even they seemed unenthusiastic about providing additional oversight.
The three USCIS executives answered questions competently and fairly during the hearing. It is important to note that USCIS is a fee-driven agency, not a taxpayer-funded one. The agency’s ability to hire and train staff is closely related to how many fees they collect. According to the witnesses, the backlog started to rise in 2015 and was driven by sudden spikes in applications/petitions, statutory changes, unanticipated work demands resulting from new crisis or programs (i.e., natural disasters for TPS; DACA program), and sudden spikes due to fee changes, and staffing shortages. Processing times increase as the number of applications/petitions grow and though USCIS is continuing to hire more staff, it does take months to hire and train officers – simply having more fees is not an immediate fix to the backlog or processing times. That said, it was asserted by Mr. Hoefer that the backlog has now stabilized.
All three witnesses admitted that changes in USCIS or DHS policy can impact the backlog and/or processing times and that it would be fair to say that some of the policy changes coming from the Trump Administration have added to the agency’s struggle to meet processing expectations. However, the witnesses defended these new policies (denying without issuing an RFE, interviews for employment-based green cards) as adding integrity to the immigration system and the delay was attributed to training officers to handle the new policies. They analogized this to the Obama Administration’s DACA policy, which caused USCIS to reallocate significant funds and resources to implement that program and had the symbiotic effect of significantly increasing the overall case backlog and processing times.
Several Representatives asked the witnesses if there was anything Congress could do to help alleviate the backlog and processing times. While the witness did not reject the idea of a gift of funds, they did not jump at the proposal either. More concrete suggestions of legislative action included Congressional authorization to expand the agency’s training facility as well as Congressional support when USCIS proposes changes to its fee schedule to better match its needs. For its part, USCIS will continue to hire and train staff and seeks to reduce the time it takes to actually bring people onboard (the witnesses stated that the time it takes the agency to hire and train someone is more concerning than the rate of turnover).
Before the hearing was concluded, Chairwoman Lofgren added several letters from immigration advocacy groups to the record. Ranking member Buck added a statement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The second panel of non-government witnesses was intended (AILA, CLINIC, Immigrant Legal Research Center, and CIS) but only Lofgren and Buck attended.
In her closing remarks, Chairwoman Lofgren expressed concern that the technology sector in Toronto was growing faster than Silicon Valley and surmised that part of that growth could be attributed to delays with, and denials from, USCIS. Reacting to the Trump Administration’s policies, Chairwoman Lofgren asked the witnesses, “What is being achieved here?”
Although the witnesses provided valuable insight into the inner workings of USCIS, the Subcommittee did not make any explicit statements about conducting more oversight or introducing legislative solutions to help alleviate the backlog. This hearing was an important first step in addressing some of the challenges at the agency. Without greater national awareness of this issue, Congress may be slow to act, leaving USCIS to dig themselves out of this hole.