On July 11, 2023, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman) hosted a webinar highlighting its 2023 Annual Report to Congress.
During this engagement, the CIS Ombudsman’s staff provided an overview of the 2023 Annual Report and shared some of the report’s 23 recommendations made to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to improve the administration of immigration benefits and services.
Below are the topics and some of the recommendations discussed. The CIS Ombudsman’s Annual Report to Congress page includes highlights from the full report. Some of the main points from the webinar discussion include:
Backlogs in the long term: 2022 in review
- In 2022, USCIS prioritized employment-based immigrant visa adjustments and naturalization applications, and it succeeded in reducing the backlog in some areas.
- Significant new tasks—such as the expansion of humanitarian parole—created processing and operational challenges that will impact future workloads for some time to come.
- The CIS Ombudsman felt the downstream impacts of USCIS backlogs, receiving record-high numbers of case assistance requests—a 4 percent increase from 2021 and an 86 percent increase from 2020.
The growing humanitarian mission of USCIS and its impact on future workloads
- There are downstream consequences to USCIS’ increasing humanitarian work, which includes Operation Allies Welcome, Uniting for Ukraine, and new processes for individuals in the United States to privately sponsor individuals from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who apply for humanitarian parole.
- The longer parolees remain in the United States, the more likely they will seek additional USCIS services such as re-parole and work authorization renewals. As a result, USCIS will likely experience operational bottlenecks and backlogs.
- The CIS Ombudsman makes six recommendations to USCIS to mitigate the impact of its growing humanitarian mission.
The use of requests for additional evidence in L-1 petitions
- We found that, for the most part, USCIS adjudicators are properly applying the agency’s deference policy. However, USCIS’ deference policy inexplicably excludes L 1 petition extension cases previously adjudicated by the Department of State.
- There is concern that USCIS adjudicators may be issuing some requests for evidence (RFEs) beyond what is required by the preponderance of evidence legal standard. USCIS does not currently have a quality assurance program in place to systematically assess whether unnecessary RFEs are being issued.
- While USCIS has made improvements to its RFE processes, the CIS Ombudsman makes five recommendations to improve the quality of RFEs in L-1 cases.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS): The impact and challenges of increased demand
- Sixteen countries have TPS designations, and the number of TPS requests has increased exponentially in recent years. This increase has led to longer processing times—almost 15 months as of March 2023.
- Many TPS beneficiaries have been in the United States for decades without a pathway to lawful permanent resident status. They must re-register for TPS and renew their employment and travel authorization documents, which compounds USCIS’ workload.
- To enhance its management of these populations, the CIS Ombudsman makes five recommendations for USCIS to change its operations.
A look back at USCIS’ unprecedented Fiscal Year 2022 efforts to use all employment-based immigrant visas
- USCIS senior leadership met regularly with operational components to track visa use progress, identify challenges in real-time, and develop strategies to maximize the use of employment-based visas.
- Prioritizing employment-based applications required certain tradeoffs in USCIS’ workload. Some pain points included increased processing time for forms primarily handled by the Field Operations Directorate.
- To maintain the momentum and some of the best practices employed at that time, the CIS Ombudsman makes three recommendations to USCIS.
Improving the customer experience from the Contact Center to the field
- On January 23, 2023, USCIS published its Fiscal Years 2023-2026 Strategic Plan with customer service as one of its major themes. USCIS has made progress through various online tools and increased stakeholder engagements and listening sessions.
- The CIS Ombudsman highlights that in a highly technologically driven era, human interaction is still imperative.
- The CIS Ombudsman makes four recommendations to USCIS as the agency strives to provide more effective customer service.
USCIS determines whether to accept and implement CIS Ombudsman recommendations. The agency may act on some recommendations immediately while others may take years to result in change. The CIS Ombudsman tracks USCIS’ progress in responding to recommendations and posts the agency’s responses on our USCIS Responses to Annual Reports to Congress page. The CIS Ombudsman will continue to collaborate with USCIS on these recommendations to effect meaningful change.
More than 250 stakeholders joined the webinar. Attendees submitted written questions and comments, several of which CIS Ombudsman staff answered directly during the event. These questions and answers have been published on this page. Below is a sample of the questions received:
- Is USCIS’ backlog affecting different parts of the naturalization application process? For example, some people who applied for naturalization in 2020 and 2021 are still waiting to receive interview appointments. Meanwhile, others have completed the interview and have been waiting for months to receive the approval and be scheduled for a naturalization ceremony.
- How is USCIS handling humanitarian parole requests and Form I-134A, Online Request to be a Supporter and Declaration of Financial Support? Is it first-in/first-out, random, or a different system?
- Are the CIS Ombudsman’s recommendations regarding RFEs specific to L-1 petitions or applicable to all RFEs?
- USCIS’ pause on Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, for nationals of all countries in the special immigrant category has had significant impacts. Is there any hope of this pause being lifted and the backlog being cleared?
- Does USCIS have any plans to utilize the unused immigrant visa numbers from 1992 to 2021?
While there were many questions directed to the CIS Ombudsman, there were also questions specifically for USCIS, which will be taken into consideration for future discussions with agency leaders.
Speakers from the CIS Ombudsman’s Office
- Nathan Stiefel, acting CIS Ombudsman
- Rachel Ellis, assistant chief of Public Engagement
- Elissa McGovern, Chief of Policy
- Ciro Parascandola, Assistant Chief of Policy (moderator)
- Edgar Muñoz, Policy Analyst
- Fred Troncone, Senior Advisor
- Fatimah Mateen, Senior Advisor
- Michael Graham, Senior Advisor
- Monica Toro, Senior Advisor
|Presentation: 2023 Annual Report Webinar
|Questions & Answers: 2023 Annual Report Webinar