On September 29, 2015, the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman's Office hosted a public teleconference regarding U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) forms. Representatives from the USCIS Office of Policy and Strategy’s Regulatory Coordination Division and the President-Elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) responded to questions posed by the Ombudsman’s Office. The discussion focused on USCIS forms, the overall changes to its forms, the reasoning behind those changes, and the process for making changes including entertaining public comment on form changes.
During the call, USCIS explained that the agency manages approximately 105 immigration forms (also referred to as collections of information) and almost half are in the revision process at any one time. Forms are revised according to the expiration dates set by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that appear on the upper right-hand corner of all forms. The Regulatory Coordination Division in the Office of Policy and Strategy ensures USCIS compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). The purpose of the PRA is to minimize paperwork and reporting burdens on the American public and to ensure the maximum possible utility from the information collected. Compliance with the PRA is confirmed through an approval process with OMB. The USCIS Regulatory Coordination Division serves as a liaison between USCIS form working groups, which are generally composed of officials from the Office of Chief Counsel and the program office that owns the form, as well as other USCIS offices that use the form, and OMB.
USCIS explained that form revisions are not always required; changes can be made to an existing form or a new form can be created if there is a modification to the Code of Federal Regulations or other reasons for doing so.. USCIS is required to take the burden to the public into consideration when determining what information it seeks to capture on a form..
Public Notice and Comment Process
The public comment process for form revisions involves several stages. When a form is set to expire, USCIS seeks feedback internally within the agency as well as externally through a collection notice to the public in the Federal Register. Upon receiving notice through the Federal Register, the public has a 60-day period within which to comment on a proposed form. Supporting documents are also posted such as a supporting statement, instructions, and occasionally a table listing the changes made from the old to the new version. The public can submit documents online via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov using the OMB control number (found at the top right of the form) or the docket number (most easily found using an online search engine – includes the agency name, year, and a four digit docket number).
Comments can also be submitted through email to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to:
DHS, USCIS, Office of Policy and Strategy
Chief, Regulatory Coordination Division
20 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20529-2140
After the comment period closes, USCIS reviews all comments received and conducts a comment analysis. USCIS then decides whether to proceed with the PRA process or issue a new or modified proposed form. The next step in the PRA process is to publish a second notice, directing the public to submit any remaining comments on a final proposed form. This time comments are submitted to OMB directly. There is a slightly different process for forms associated with a rulemaking, as such forms do not go through two opportunities for comment; they are finalized with the final rule published in the Federal Register and become effective when the regulation does, usually 30 days after publication. Forms are generally valid for one to three years before they must go through the revision process again.
AILA stated that the organization prepares formal comments on many of the USCIS form revisions. Like USCIS, they form working groups of subject matter experts to review every proposed form revision. However, AILA tries to provide comments from the perspective of the applicant.
During the Question and Answer portion of the teleconference, USCIS clarified that comment periods are sometimes extended and that most forms receive a second comment period of an additional 30 days. The agency also shared that when a comment period closes, it sometimes remains open for an additional 5-7 days while Federal Management Docket System (FMDS) is processing the dissemination of comments to the public. AILA reminded participants that forms are current for only one to three years, so another option is to wait until the next form revision occurs.
USCIS acknowledged that many forms become longer when they are revised. One reason for the increases in form length is because USCIS is requesting attestations of several people involved in the form completion, including interpreters and preparers. These attestations clarify that the parties have prepared the form to the best of their understanding.
AILA stated they have observed that recent form revisions have included improvements such as the use of larger fonts and clearer formatting that make the forms easier to read. AILA raised concern that some revised forms include additional questions. While it believes the intent of most of the questions is to use plainer language for clarity, applicants are confused and overwhelmed when required to answer several versions of the same question. AILA also is concerned that the new attestation language used by USCIS has at times been incorrect, unclear, and inconsistent.
During the Question and Answer portion of the teleconference USCIS clarified that there is no mandate to consider the environmental impact of form length under the PRA. Rather, the goal of the Act is to reduce the burden on the public in completing government forms.