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.
The Avalanche Impact of Backlogs: 2021 in Review. USCIS has frequently had to confront the impacts of its backlogs, but neither the backlogs nor their impacts have been as severe as the ones the agency currently faces. Lengthy processing times and the high numbers of unadjudicated cases—a result of the pandemic’s unprecedented effect on USCIS’ operations, employee attrition, and insufficient revenue—have had a massive adverse “snowball” effect on the agency’s operations as well as on its customers and stakeholders. To fully address the backlogs, USCIS must also continue to address their consequences. USCIS’ commitment to mitigating its backlogs of cases, as evidenced by setting aggressive processing goals for the end of FY 2023, must be matched with a full commitment to eradicating the worst of these pain points for applicants and petitioners so that they may continue to work, travel, obtain evidence of status, and be able to access expedited processing, when eligible, in a meaningful and consistent way.
The Need for More Flexibility in Renewing Employment Authorization. Delays in renewing employment authorization documents (EADs) interrupt employment for noncitizens while simultaneously hampering the ability of U.S. businesses to employ their workforce continuously. We recommend that USCIS build on existing efforts to mitigate the impact of EAD delays by increasing flexibility in the EAD renewal process, including for certain nonimmigrant spouses; continuing to identify occupations where EADs might be expedited in the national interest; further leveraging technology in support of EAD adjudications; allowing more flexibility in the Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, process; and eliminating the need for a separate EAD application in certain circumstances.
Increasing Accessibility to Legitimate Travel: Advance Parole. Due to processing delays, adjustment of status applicants find it difficult to receive advance parole documents in a timely manner, which has led to more requests for USCIS to expedite Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, and to issue advance parole for emergencies. The Annual Report presents several recommendations to reduce barriers to travel and enable USCIS to better manage the process of providing advance parole.
Improving Access to the Expedite Process. USCIS operations have been affected by the pandemic and insufficient resources, resulting in longer processing times for expedite requests. The expedite request caseload has consequently increased, further diverting resources within the agency and making it challenging for USCIS to process these requests efficiently. We include several recommendations for making the expedite request process more efficient, standardizing guidance on the process, and increasing efforts to collect data on the number of expedite requests USCIS receives as well as approval and denial rates.
Initiating a Discussion on Ways to Address the Affirmative Asylum Backlog. The asylum backlog has grown to more than 430,000 pending cases, with devastating impacts on asylum seekers and their family members. We offer recommendations to address the backlog and identify new operational approaches to improve the quality and efficiency of asylum adjudications without compromising integrity or fairness. These recommendations are intended to spark a crucial discussion on innovative ways to address the backlog.
Eliminating Barriers to Obtaining Proof of Employment Authorization for Asylum Applicants in Removal Proceedings. Asylum seekers, particularly those in removal proceedings, encounter significant barriers to obtaining proof of their employment authorization, both while their Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, is pending and after an immigration judge grants asylum. These barriers arise in part because the asylum process is split between USCIS and the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. We outline several recommendations aimed at improving coordination and decreasing delays in processing EADs and providing evidence of status.
USCIS’ Digital Strategy: Nearing an Inflection Point. While there is more work to be done, we are optimistic that USCIS’ digital strategy is nearing an inflection point that will allow for continued positive progress. We offer several new recommendations focused on developing an application programming interface; digitizing Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver; conducting a nationwide online filing and myUSCIS promotion campaign; and exploring ways to incentivize online filing.
U Nonimmigrant Status Bona Fide Determination Process: Successes and Challenges in Taking on a Backlog. The Immigration and Nationality Act allows certain victims who assist law enforcement with a criminal investigation to apply for a U visa. However, due to high demand in this capped category, processing times for U nonimmigrant status have increased. To alleviate the negative effects of these backlogs, USCIS implemented the bona fide determination (BFD) process, which allows the agency to grant eligible petitioners employment authorization and deferred action more efficiently. We explore some of the successes and challenges of the U visa BFD process.