On June 30, 2023, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ombudsman issued its 2023 annual report. The report discusses several challenges facing the agency that have further complicated USCIS’ efforts to address its mountainous case backlog and crisis-level processing delays. As someone who has spent a great deal of time monitoring the agency’s efforts to right the ship over the last several years, it is admittedly difficult to read the report without being frustrated by the lack of progress and worried about the multitude of new obstacles threatening to impede forward movement.   

First, the positive. There has undoubtedly been significant effort by both the agency and its staff to address these issues. Thanks in large part to $275 million appropriated by Congress in FY22, USCIS was able to hire additional staff and complete a significant amount of work to benefit its customers. As highlighted in the report, in 2022, agency staff completed over one million naturalization applications, reducing the net backlog for those cases by 62%. They set, and impressively achieved, a goal of adjudicating double the typically available number of employment-based adjustment of status applications. They also reduced processing delays for several critical forms such as Employment Authorization Document (EAD) applications, where processing times fell to 5.5 months for requests based on adjustment applications and two months for those based on asylum applications.  

In addition, USCIS has taken steps to reduce barriers to its services and provide greater transparency and better customer service for its customers. AILA tracked its efforts in a chart following up on the status of over 80 recommendations we made in 2021 in response to a request for input from the agency. Not included in this chart are recent updates from AILA’s 2023 Annual Conference, where USCIS announced and demonstrated several new customer service digital tools designed to increase efficiency at its field offices and Contact Center and reduce both wait times and customer frustration. These include a text ahead feature for the Contact Center, an online appointment request form for local field offices for certain issues, an online change of address function, and an online function to request a new biometrics appointment date that rolled out on June 28, 2023.  These efforts, and results, are noteworthy and indicative of an agency determined to fulfill its statutory mission of efficiently administering immigration benefits for its customers.   

However, as shown by the Ombudsman’s annual report,  the agency is still struggling to meet its goals and has recently taken on additional workloads that threaten tthe progress made thus far. The overall backlog of pending cases continues to grow, nearing 9 million cases, and processing times for certain form types have reached heights that tower over numbers from just a few years ago. AILA has discussed the toll of these excessive delays, such as the now more than 850% increase in processing times for Form I-601A waivers from FY2018, the result of which is personal hardship, separated families, and financial strain and disruptions for U.S. businesses. As the Ombudsman notes, much of the agency’s efforts to mitigate the impact of the backlog and these delays, such as extending the validity of receipts, have been treatment of the symptoms rather than addressing the source of the issues. While doing so might provide momentary relief, as the backlog and processing delays continue to grow, so too does the pool of applicants that need to take advantage of ancillary benefits provided by the agency, ultimately requiring greater efforts from the agency to juggle these added flexibilities and eliminate the problem.  

Further complicating things are the additional workload and depletion of resources resulting from the May 2022 asylum processing Interim Final Rule and humanitarian crises across the globe. As the report states, these events are outside of USCIS’s control and have required the expenditure of significant resources that might have otherwise been applied to the backlog. Programs such as Operations Allies Welcome, Uniting for Ukraine, Credible Fear Interviews at the border and  parole programs providing legal pathways to ease the pressure on the Southern Border have resulted in a more significant workload and responsibility for the agency, as has recent increases in TPS applications. As noted in the report, in addition to the immediate work created by these programs, the agency will likely see an increase in many form types, such as advance parole, work authorization, and asylum applications, further exacerbating backlogs and processing delays. It is crucial that the agency is adequately staffed and resourced to manage both its added workload and its backlog reduction effort.  

So, what can be done? Over the last several years, AILA has issued several briefs and comments offering recommendations to USCIS on how to reduce barriers to its services and urging Congress to provide continued appropriations to assist the agency in its efforts, similar to the amount it appropriated during the last fiscal year. Considering the new challenges it is facing, USCIS must take immediate steps to further reduce barriers and inefficiencies in its processes. AILA will continue our efforts to hold the agency accountable and ensure it is adequately staffed and funded. However, we urge our members, their clients, and the public to join us by taking action. Complete the Take Action form in AILA’s Advocacy Center, and call on USCIS to take necessary actions to remove barriers to its benefits and services, to streamline its processes, and crucially to eliminate its ballooning backlog. Share stories or examples of the impact of how excessive processing delays, inefficient processes, and ineffective customer service has impacted you, your firm, or your clients. With your help, we can ensure the agency has the resources needed to chart a course forward where progress is not just a promise, but a reality.