By statute, the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman) submits an Annual Report to Congress by June 30 of each year. Our Annual Report must provide a summary of the most pervasive and serious problems encountered by individuals and employers applying for immigration benefits with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The Annual Report also reviews past recommendations to improve USCIS programs and services.
Backlogs in the long term: 2022 in review. USCIS began the year fully cognizant of its challenges in decreasing processing times and getting its backlogs under control and took significant steps to accomplish those goals. But 2022 brought with it significant new tasks for the agency that would create their own processing and operational challenges—challenges that the agency continues to grapple with in 2023 and that will impact future workloads. This Annual Report examines several of those challenges and makes specific recommendations to improve operations, assist in fixing processing and policy issues, and address some of the agency’s largest challenges.
The growing humanitarian mission of USCIS and its impact on future workloads. Some of the backlogs that took precedence in 2022 were not entirely of the agency’s own making. Global upheaval, political confrontations, and climate issues created populations in need of temporary protection. Each new USCIS program responded in different ways to different emergency scenarios, and the agency stretched both its resources and its ingenuity to respond. But these programs will continue to present operational challenges to USCIS in the coming years. As these populations navigate the immigration system, USCIS should consider ways to mitigate the downstream impacts of its growing humanitarian mission.
The use of requests for additional evidence in L-1 petitions. Stakeholders continue to report difficulties related to USCIS’ issuance of requests for evidence (RFEs), a topic first studied by the CIS Ombudsman in 2010. This time, we are specifically looking at RFEs issued for petitions for the L-1A and L-1B nonimmigrant categories, based on stakeholder reports of overly broad and burdensome RFEs, duplicative RFEs, inconsistent adjudications, lack of deference to previous decisions, and a misunderstanding of the standard of proof. While USCIS has made improvements, we make several recommendations to improve the quality of RFEs in L-1 cases.
Temporary Protected Status: the impact and challenges of increased demand. The benefits of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which provides temporary protection from removal and work authorization to nationals of designated countries, are critical, but new designations and extensions result in the agency carrying a larger and more complex workload. There are now 16 countries with TPS designation and almost 700,000 people who hold this benefit. USCIS has taken steps to address its backlogs, but processing times continue to increase. To enhance its management of these populations, we encourage USCIS to consider some operational changes proposed in our report.
A look back at USCIS’ unprecedented Fiscal Year 2022 efforts to use all employment-based immigrant visas. The unique challenges the agency encountered from Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 through FY 2022–years that corresponded to the COVID-19 pandemic–with respect to immigrant visa issuance compelled the agency to be increasingly innovative. In FY 2022, USCIS faced a daunting challenge to issue more than 280,000 employment-based immigrant visas, more than double the normal amount. Working with the Department of State, USCIS fully committed its resources to adjudicating these applications and succeeded in issuing all available visas. This historic completion rate came at a cost, however. By prioritizing these applications, others were further delayed, at a time when backlogs have never been more severe. The CIS Ombudsman makes three recommendations to USCIS on how to maintain the momentum and reviews best practices employed at that time.
Improving the customer experience from the Contact Center to the field. In implementing the President’s Executive Order 14058, “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government” (Dec. 13, 2021), USCIS is undertaking numerous initiatives to improve customer service. With its mission of immigration benefits administration, the agency has the particular challenge of serving a vast customer base that covers all backgrounds, nationalities, educational levels, and interests. As USCIS strives to provide more effective customer service, we offer several suggestions for the agency to consider.