By statute, the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman submits an Annual Report to Congress by June 30 of each year. The CIS Ombudsman’s 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.
Annual Report 2020 Highlights
USCIS Naturalization Backlog. The N-400 backlog has steadily increased in the past decade, but surged significantly in fiscal years (FY) 2016 and 2017, resulting in a pending inventory of 652,431 applications at the end of 2019. USCIS has made efforts to deal with its backlog, including increasing fees to more closely align with a full fee recovery, but the closure of USCIS field offices caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this backlog, creating a significant issue in addressing processing delays.
USCIS Denaturalization Operations. USCIS has worked to increase and centralize its denaturalization operations and referrals, in part due to weaknesses in the background check process that resulted in ineligible applicants becoming naturalized citizens. In January 2018, USCIS created the Benefits Integrity Office (BIO) (formerly known as the Historical Fingerprint Enrollment (HFE) Unit) in November 2019, to review questionable naturalization cases identified in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) OIG’s report on Operation Janus. BIO’s denaturalization workload has since expanded and USCIS continues to analyze and learn from the cases to implement front end measures to prevent fraud and the erroneous naturalization of ineligible applicants.
USCIS Challenges to Address the Affirmative Asylum Backlog. The USCIS Asylum Division oversees the affirmative asylum application process and conducts all fear screenings for individuals apprehended at the U.S. border who are subject to expedited removal proceedings. Since 2014, fear screenings at the Southern border and affirmative asylum receipts have adversely impacted the USCIS Asylum Division. USCIS has managed these obligations through staffing adjustments, policy updates and proposed regulations. Despite many efforts, the affirmative asylum backlog remains above 350,000 as of the publication of this Report. USCIS could publish processing times for long-pending asylum applications and could triage pending applications to determine ineligible cases that may be removed from the queue.
Foreign Students and Regulating Optional Practical Training. Foreign students in the United States have options to pursue non-academic learning activities, including temporary employment through Optional Practical Training (OPT). This article conducts a risk analysis of the OPT program by examining three areas: threat, vulnerability and consequence. The risk assessment raises concerns about vulnerabilities in the program that may be exploited by foreign governments with interests adverse to those of the United States.
Spotlight on the DHS IDII. DHS has had a longstanding challenge with collecting, storing, sharing, and analyzing immigration data. To address these issues, in September 2016, the Department launched the Immigration Data Integration Initiative (IDII). As the IDII nears its four-year anniversary, it is working closely with newly-appointed DHS and Component Chief Data Officers (CDO) to begin implementing immigration data standards, collaborating with U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) Unified Immigration Portal (UIP) team to improve enterprise-wide access to standardized data, and delivering authoritative statistical Immigration Data as a Service (ImmDaaS) to internal and external stakeholders.
A Follow-up Review of USCIS’ InfoMod. While the initiation of the Information Services Modernization (InfoMod) initiative was somewhat bumpy, both program times and response times have improved since its nationwide expansion. Data from 2019 seems to indicate InfoMod has met its stated goal to free up adjudication resources by steering inquirers to the self-help tools available through a variety of media, although it is unclear how those resources have benefited adjudication times. Stakeholders continue to report dissatisfaction with the program, citing wait times to speak to a representative and a lack of knowledge among the initial representatives encountered. The InfoMod program will continue to be on the front lines as USCIS returns to in-person operations at its field offices in the wake of COVID-19.