Preparing for hurricanes – or any disaster, for that matter – is one of our highest priorities at the Department of Homeland Security. Over the past few months, we have worked very closely with our state, local, and tribal partners to ensure we are in a strong position to support their efforts should a major disaster strike that requires federal assistance.
In Florida, Craig and I visited Lake Mary, just outside Orlando, where FEMA operates a response and recovery center and toured a FEMA logistics warehouse in Orlando that plays a critical role in staging and moving supplies and commodities during emergencies.
We also met with state and local leaders in Miami and toured Department of Homeland Security operations at the Port of Miami, where the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection all work together to protect port operations and prevent the entry of illegal drugs, migrants, and counterfeit goods.
Our trip to Florida follows our teleconference last week with governors from across the country to discuss hurricane season. Our message was clear and simple: we are preparing for this year’s hurricane season and we stand ready to support our state, local, and tribal partners should they need assistance. (updated 5/29/09 9:30am)
At FEMA and across the Department, we have worked hard to improve preparedness in three main areas:
- We are better organized. We have a new National Shelter System that contains information for thousands of emergency shelter resources nationwide. This will allow us to provide temporary sheltering assistance faster and in a more orderly fashion.
- We are better coordinated. We have coordinated regional evacuation and emergency communication plans with our state, local, tribal, and private sector partners, and have secured more options for temporary housing in the event of a disaster.
- We are better connected. We frequently host video teleconferences among federal, state and local leaders so that we all can share new information and best practices and work together to improve preparedness and identify any gaps in our planning.
On Wednesday I had the opportunity to meet with the families of two fallen Border Patrol agents who gave their lives in the service of our Department and our nation.
Senior Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar and Border Patrol Agent Jarod Dittman were killed in the line of duty last year as they performed their responsibilities as Border Patrol agents working to protect our Southwest border.
Agent Aguilar was struck and killed by the driver of a vehicle attempting to evade capture near Calexico, California and return into Mexico. The driver of that vehicle is now in federal custody in Mexico and faces second-degree murder charges and federal narcotics violations in the United States. Agent Dittman was killed in a vehicle accident in Jamul, California in the early morning hours while en route to his patrol area.
I assured the family members that we will never forget the sacrifices made by their loved ones. While no words can ever repay their loss, this week the names of both agents were inscribed into the CBP Valor Memorial in Washington, D.C. to stand as a permanent tribute to their service.
On Wednesday, Agent Aguilar and Agent Dittman's names also were added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, along with 131 officers who died in the line of duty in 2008. As part of National Police Week 2009, I attended a candlelight vigil on Wednesday evening in their honor.
It is sometimes easy to forget the sacrifices our law enforcement officers and their families make on a daily basis as they protect our communities and the American people – and the very real dangers they encounter while on the job. This is a good time to honor the memories of those who have fallen, and give thanks to those who keep our nation safe.
This is a complicated subject, so I want to provide a little background. Becoming a permanent resident based on employment can require a number of steps, including obtaining a labor certification from the Department of Labor, receiving approval on a petition for alien worker from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) (Form I-140) and obtaining an immigrant visa from the Department of State or being granted adjustment of status from USCIS. In addition, by law there are numerical limits on the number of people who can immigrate to the U.S. each year in most categories. You can see a more detailed explanation about the employment-based visa application process online.
Some readers have asked about the volume of employment applications and delays that have occurred in employment-based visa petition and adjustment application processing in late 2007 and early 2008. There were a number of factors that affected USCIS' handling of these cases during that time. Employers filed more than 234,000 petitions to sponsor foreign workers (Form I-140) as the Department of Labor cleared a large backlog of labor certification applications and implemented new regulations. Adjustment-of-status application filings also soared to nearly 300,000. We attribute the increase in adjustment application filings to a couple things. First, customers' anticipation of USCIS' filing fee increase in July 2007. Second, a unique opportunity for workers and their families to file adjustment applications based on the visa availability date announced in the July 2007 Immigrant Visa Bulletin. Many of these availability dates have since reverted, creating a backlog of adjustment applications that cannot be adjudicated until a visa becomes available.
A few months ago, a customer indicated his frustration that while he can monitor the Visa Bulletin to see how it moves month to month, he still has no idea how many people are waiting in line with pending adjustment applications or how long it may be before USCIS can process and approve his application. We know this customer is not alone! In response to that customer's request, we are working to make this information available on our Web site.
I understand the importance of becoming a permanent resident. I also recognize workers may rightly want to take advantage of the limited provisions in current law that allow certain applicants to change employers without affecting their ability to adjust status. As a result, USCIS has taken the following steps:
- USCIS has increased the emphasis on processing employment-based petitions. Our goal is to complete adjudication on the older I-140 petitions and to process newer petitions within our targeted processing time of four months. We are making progress toward this goal and anticipate reaching this goal by the end of September 2009.
- USCIS is issuing employment authorization documents valid for two years, as needed.
- USCIS is working with the State Department to make sure we use every available visa number. In 2007, we had more visas available in the family-based categories than were needed, so as permitted by law, we transferred those available family-based visas for use in the employment-based application process.
Acting Deputy Director, USCIS
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Last week I traveled to Mexico, with brief stops in California and Texas. The purpose of my visit was to meet with my foreign counterparts, assess the situation on the Southwest Border with respect to drug cartel violence, hear directly from federal, state, tribal, and local officials, and announce some additional resources we are deploying to the border to help Mexico in its fight against these dangerous cartels.
In California, I met with state and local leaders in San Diego, toured the border and visited the Otay Mesa port of entry – one of the busiest commercial ports on the Southwest border.
More than $400 million in Recovery Act funds is being directed to the Southwest border. This money will be used to upgrade infrastructure at the ports of entry, add technology and inspection equipment, and strengthen our surveillance and communications capabilities.
In Mexico, I visited with my foreign counterparts, and along with Attorney General Holder, attended an important conference on arms trafficking. The smuggling of guns is a serious problem and contributes to a lot of the violence we’re seeing in Mexico among the drug cartels and organized criminal networks.
To combat the problem, we are moving substantial resources to border, including more than 360 additional DHS officers and agents, license plate readers that will allow us to scan for suspect vehicles, southbound rail screening, and additional grant funding for state and local law enforcement. These measures will help us counter the flow of guns and cash into Mexico while protecting cities and communities along the border.
Finally, on my return, I stopped in Laredo, Texas to meet with community leaders, speak with members of the Laredo Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST), which is a multi-agency law enforcement team that fights criminal organizations and smugglers, and visit the Laredo port of entry. In recent weeks, we’ve made several significant seizures of cash and guns in Laredo, including more than $3 million discovered in a hidden compartment in the floor of a bus bound for Mexico.
Examples like this impede the ability of criminal organizations to fund their activities. Since the start of this fiscal year, CBP and ICE together have seized more than $55 million in cash, over 630 weapons, and nearly 125,000 rounds of ammunition.
We’re going to continue to keep the pressure on. I consider this a historic opportunity to help Mexico confront a serious threat that impacts the safety and security of both of our countries. We all have a stake in this fight, and here at the Department we’re going to continue to do our part to make sure we succeed.
Today the Department took a major step forward to advance one of President Obama's most important goals – improving efficiency and transparency across the Federal government.
Efficiency is essential to effective governance. It helps reduce costs and ensure taxpayer money isn’t wasted. It improves performance and customer satisfaction. And it strengthens employee morale.
Over the next 120 days, we will begin implementing nearly two dozen initiatives to trim costs, streamline operations, eliminate duplication, and better manage resources across the Department.
This effort is the result of a comprehensive assessment by our Efficiency Review team, which worked with DHS components, offices, and employees to identify more than 700 initiatives – some immediate, some long-term – to improve efficiency and transparency.
Among the immediate changes we will make over the next 30 days:
- Eliminating all non-mission critical travel for employees and maximizing our use of conference calls and web-based training and meetings;
- Reducing subscriptions to professional publications and newspapers to lower costs and avoid duplication;
- Eliminating printing and distribution of all reports and documents that can be sent electronically or posted on-line.
We're also going to take action to improve how we track and monitor fuel usage for our vehicles. Over the next 60 days, we will begin implementing a new electronic tracking system that will help increase alternative fuel usage; guard against waste, fraud, and abuse; and optimize how we manage our fleet.
In addition, we will begin acquiring hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles over the next 120 days. We expect a 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency in large vehicles, and even greater efficiency in smaller vehicles as a result of this change.
To become more energy efficient, we will also begin implementing energy efficiencies at DHS offices across the country. Over the next 120 days, we will initiate a process to identify and move toward renewable energy technology and greater energy conservation, with a goal of saving $3 million per year.
Over the next 60 days, we will also implement a process to purchase computer software licenses as a single Department – as opposed to individual agencies. As a result, we expect to save over $47 million per year and $283 million over the next six years.
Finally, we’re going to take steps to streamline employee training and orientations, and reduce costs and backlogs associated with background checks for new employees.
This is just the beginning. In the coming months, we’ll announce even more initiatives to improve efficiency. I look forward to keeping you updated as we make these changes, which will result in a stronger, more effective DHS.
March 23, 2009 - The Coast Guard Service Secretary Transfer of Authority officially recognized the transfer of authority as service secretary of the Coast Guard from former Secretary Michael Chertoff to Secretary Janet Napolitano. Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen spoke at the ceremony in Washington, D.C.
As of mid-February, USCIS and the FBI had completed all name checks that were pending for more than six months. In doing so, we beat our publicly stated goal by almost two full weeks. With the milestone’s completion, the FBI and USCIS have met or exceeded the first six milestones outlined last summer.
And that might not be the most exciting news. We’re on track to meet our May 31 milestone of completing name check requests pending longer than 90 days. By the end of June, the FBI will complete 98-percent of USCIS name check requests within 30 days and process the remaining two percent within 90 days.
Let me put that into perspective. At the beginning of November 2007, there were nearly 350,000 pending name check requests. Of that total, more than 54,000 had been pending for more than two years. Another 55,000 had been pending for at least a year. Today, there’s a grand total of 6,756 pending name check requests. And of that number, not one has been pending for more than six months. In fact as of that February 17 snapshot, the FBI was completing 99.2 percent of all requests in less than 30 days.
The results speak for themselves. The effective elimination of the name check backlog means that USCIS can make more timely decisions about immigration applications and petitions. That includes cases with derogatory information and those that are otherwise approvable. In both the present and the future, USCIS and the FBI will continue to focus on sustaining the rigorous and efficient screening of each name check request. Our joint attention to eliminating the name check backlog will ensure we reward deserving, eligible applicants with benefits like U.S. citizenship and permanent residency in a more timely manner.
Mike Aytes Acting Deputy Director
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services