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AILA Doc. No. 21021236 | Dated February 12, 2021
Over the past four years, there has been a well-documented shift in USCIS’s priorities. While Congress established the agency through the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to focus on the effective and efficient administration of immigration benefits, it has in recent years sought to distance itself from its customer-oriented origins. This shift in priority is evident in several changes that the agency has made to its services both on a national and local level, and in several policies enacted during the last four years that appear to have been designed to make it harder for USCIS customers to obtain benefits. In making these changes, the agency effectively walled itself off from its customers, creating barriers to immigration benefits and timely and efficient customer service. This invisible wall has resulted in a significant decrease in customers’ ability to access meaningful assistance and informational updates from the agency. It has also reduced customers’ ability to provide much-needed feedback to USCIS regarding problematic case issues and other trends. As the agency transitions to work under a new administration, agency officials must take active measures to reduce and eliminate inefficient processes and policies and increase transparency at both the national and local levels. AILA provides this policy brief to offer smart, sensible solutions for USCIS to rebuild a transparent, efficient, and customer service-oriented agency.
Watch: Walled Off: Recommendations for an Efficient, Customer Service-Oriented USCIS
USCIS demonstrated its intention to move away from its previously customer-oriented mission through several measures over the last four years. These measures have decreased customers’ ability to obtain meaningful engagement regarding case status, or necessary, and in some cases, urgent, or complex solutions to case-related issues. The changes made to USCIS’s public engagement model have also limited, if not eliminated, customers’ options to engage with USCIS staff, thereby limiting valuable access to both case-specific information and general policies.
Below we discuss several of these issues, as well as recommendations that AILA has for agency officials and members of Congress to ensure that USCIS returns to fulfilling its mission to provide timely and efficient service to its customers.
In February 2018, USCIS revised its mission statement to remove reference to the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” as well as to remove the reference to “customers.” The agency also stopped using the word “customer” when referring to petitioners/applicants in general. USCIS supplemented this change by quietly rebranding the National Customer Service Center (NCSC), as the USCIS Contact Center, and removing the word “customer” from agency materials such as the USCIS Policy Manual and offices designed to provide information and assistance to customers. Considering that USCIS, in its own words, is funded primarily by fees paid by petitioners/applicants, it is striking that the agency has determined that its mission is no longer to provide benefits to those very same individuals and entities.
USCIS should alter its current mission statement to reflect our nation’s commitment to welcoming immigrants from across the globe. AILA recommends the following be adopted as the agency’s mission statement to ensure that the agency adheres to its statutory mission and signals that foreign nationals are an essential and welcomed component of building our country back better:
USCIS administers our nation’s immigration system in a way that honors our history and future of welcoming immigrants from all walks of life and recognizes the contributions they make to build a better America. USCIS justly establishes national immigration policies and accurately, fairly, and efficiently adjudicates immigration benefit applications based on our immigration laws, which were designed to welcome individuals on their path to U.S. residence and citizenship. Moreover, USCIS provides timely and accurate information to its customers regarding immigration policies, procedures, and individual case status, while securing our homeland and supporting our shared strengths as a nation.
AILA urges the agency to return to its customer service origins and to recognize once again the individuals that fund its operations as “customers.” To reflect this, USCIS should rename the USCIS Contact Center to the USCIS National Customer Service Center. Moreover, USCIS should elevate the customer service and public engagement divisions into its own directorate that reports to the USCIS director. These changes will demonstrate the agency’s intention to once again serve its customers and fulfill its statutory mission of efficiently administering immigration benefits.
The ability for individuals, businesses, and their representatives to get case information, status updates, or assistance on their cases is a vital part of the immigration process. However, historically USCIS’s toll-free phone system has not been a paragon of efficient and effective customer service. In the summer of 2017, USCIS began limiting who can access case information or case-specific assistance via the 1-800 number. Before this time, a member of the attorney of record’s staff or firm was able to raise a question or submit a service request. Without providing notice to the public, the agency stopped accepting calls from law firm staff apart from the attorney of record. Attorneys must now spend significant time on hold or working their way through the USCIS phone system to complete what were previously simple tasks such as scheduling a local appointment or submitting a service request for an issue with a particular case.
Soon after fully implementing this change, the agency consolidated almost all case-specific customer inquiries through the USCIS 1-800 phone line, making it the primary point of contact for customers. Customers are now expected to near-exclusively utilize the phone line to make appointments at local offices, follow up on previously-submitted service requests, and address complex case issues even in instances where prior attempts at calling the phone line had not succeeded in resolving these issues. Customers using the phone line have faced significant technical and training issues without a separate recourse for follow up.
According to a June 2020 annual report from the Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman), “To speak to a live representative, callers must first navigate a long series of prompts and menu options and listen to at least one substantive (and sometimes complicated) message.” This process has clearly proven excessive for many, as data that USCIS provided on April 15, 2020, indicates that nearly 25 percent of callers “abandon their attempts to reach the Contact Center” before reaching a live representative. Once customers reach a live representative (Tier 1) and submit a request, there is still another step left in the process. They may still have to wait days before receiving a call back from an officer (Tier 2) able to assist, which could be received during non-working hours. If they miss callbacks from the agency, they may be required to start the process from scratch.
Long delays are not limited to attorneys and their staff. Many pro se applicants must also endure extensive wait times and irregular callback hours that may also hamper their ability to do their work or require them to start the inquiry process anew after missing calls from USCIS. Lastly, USCIS has confirmed to the CIS Ombudsman in the July 2020 Annual Report that due to the implementation of a new vendor contract in late 2018, the agency saw its Tier 1 staffing shrink significantly. As of March 31, 2020, the number remains below the expected level anticipated in late 2018.
Most recently in May 2020, the agency added another significant hurdle by moving to an interactive response telephone system that requires customers to perform voice response commands to speak with a representative and removes the ability to utilize keypad options to speak to a representative. The agency claims that the new system creates a personalized experience for customers. However, AILA members report excessively long wait times, dropped calls, and a voice response that leads them around in circles rather than actually directing them to a live representative. A recent survey of AILA members showed that 40 percent of those who responded reported difficulties reaching a live person through the new phone system. That same survey showed that 25 percent of respondents reported issues involving abrupt disconnections when attempting to reach a live person, or when being transferred to a Tier 2 officer. The process is far from efficient and given that customers have to work to reach a live representative, it also does not seem personalized. In addition, AILA members reported that the new system would often state that customers do not qualify to speak to an agent and would terminate the call, in some cases when an expedite request was being made. Lastly, even when AILA members have gotten through to a live representative, they have received incorrect information and advice to both legal representatives and their clients due to a lack of training.
AILA recommends the following actions be taken to address the issues plaguing the USCIS Customer Service Center.
One of the most important and commonly used services offered by USCIS is scheduling a local USCIS office appointment. For many years, these appointments were made via a self-scheduling portal on the agency’s website through the InfoPass system; however, this has been completely phased out and replaced with the InfoMod program at all local USCIS offices. Under the InfoMod program, in order to schedule an appointment, customers must follow a three-tiered process through the USCIS Customer Service Center system:
The goal of this program is supposedly to ensure that in-person appointments are attended or used for issues that cannot be resolved in other ways. Whereas the process for scheduling an InfoPass appointment was relatively quick and online, the InfoMod program takes a surprising step back technologically to a phone-based system where customers are required to schedule an appointment via a multi-pronged process with live officers. This change has created several issues that have caused both confusion and frustration for customers. AILA has received reports of, among other issues, confusion concerning the issues that qualify for an InfoMod appointment, erratic callback times outside of normal business hours, and inordinate amounts of time spent on or near a telephone. It has proven to be a significant inconvenience for petitioners, applicants, and law firm staff and has created yet another obstacle for individuals seeking to navigate an already complicated immigration system just to schedule an appointment to get benefits or seek case resolution.
One of the most significant changes brought forth by the new InfoMod program is the elimination of walk-in availability at local USCIS field offices. This is a stark change in policy that eliminates a key customer service function of the local USCIS office. For emergencies or time-sensitive issues, USCIS field offices offered walk-in availability to assist individuals seeking to urgently obtain immigration benefits. This benefit was integral for individuals with an urgent need to, among other things, travel, demonstrate their current immigration status, follow up on their application, obtain an I-94 record for a defensive asylum grantee, or for individuals seeking to fee-in a motion or application with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
USCIS claims that these services are still provided under InfoMod. However, USCIS has not made the public aware of any protocol for handling emergency requests in lieu of walk-in availability except that those who request emergency appointments through the USCIS Customer Service Center, if they are able to reach a live representative, will be prioritized. AILA has also received reports from members of requests for urgent scheduling of an appointment on an issue being rejected. While it is possible that not every situation that customers deem urgent requires an emergency appointment, USCIS offices have traditionally been available to handle these rare requests. The current set up of the InfoMod program exacerbates this problem as the process creates an environment in which miscommunication between contracted Tier 1 representatives and pro se applicants or attorneys of record could lead to a meritorious request being rejected either due to a misunderstanding on the contractor’s part or due to an applicant’s misunderstanding about the nature of their case.
USCIS local field offices must be made adequately available to handle emergencies or time-sensitive issues. The agency can ensure availability by advising local field offices to once again accept walk-in appointments in limited circumstances. To avoid overuse of these appointments, USCIS should provide guidance concerning issues that would qualify as time-sensitive or urgent. While an exhaustive list of relevant issues cannot be provided based on the often unique emergencies that arise, some common issues that should be considered include obtaining a temporary I-551 stamp, feeing in motions or applications with EOIR, and making an emergency advance parole request. While there will understandably be some unique and complex issues for the agency to consider on a case-by-case basis, this public notice will ensure that only customers with issues that merit urgent attention receive it.
A critical part of quality customer service is adjudicating cases in a timely fashion. Indeed, the Homeland Security Act expressly references the elimination and prevention of case backlogs and conveys the sense of Congress that, upon implementation of Act, “concerns regarding the quality and efficiency of immigration services are addressed.” In February 2020, AILA reviewed available USCIS case processing data from FY2014 to FY2019. Our resulting analysis showed crisis level delays across various form types for immigrant and nonimmigrant applications and petitions. The overall average case processing time surged by 25 percent from the end of FY2017 through FY2019 despite a 10 percent decrease in overall case receipts, and by 101 percent from FY2014 to the end of FY2019. Over the last fiscal year, the agency’s overall processing times have continued to rise by close to 5 percent. These delays result in lapsed work authorization, prolonged family separation, and extreme anxiety for USCIS’s customers.
The worsening of processing time delays and the millions of backlogged cases are products of the agency’s deleterious policies. Over the last four years, the agency has implemented several policies that have expanded its already excessive workload and served to slow down case processing rather than make it more efficient. Two examples of such policies include the agency’s October 1, 2017, implementation of universal, in-person interview requirements for employment-based immigration applications and I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petitions at local USCIS offices, and the October 23, 2017, rescission of guidance advising adjudicating officers to defer to prior approvals of nonimmigrant employment-based extension petitions. These policies, among others, have required that the agency expend valuable time and resources by requiring interviews for individuals not deemed a concern by the agency and mandating the agency’s readjudication of petitions previously deemed approvable.
To cut down on superfluous work, the agency must rescind inefficient and costly policies put in place over the last four years. Many implemented policies, such as the expanded interview requirements for employment-based I-485 applications and I-730 beneficiaries, have proven to be time intensive and unnecessary. Recently, the agency has further expanded interview requirements for most I-730 petitioners and has also updated its criteria for case-by-case interviews of asylee and refugee I-485 applicants. The agency can further reduce delays by rescinding these policies and working to more efficiently streamline the adjudication process by adjudicating related cases together, only requiring biometrics appointments when necessary, reducing unnecessary Requests for Evidence, and ensuring that staffing is properly allocated to reducing backlogs. Taking such actions will serve to reduce the number of inquiries raised through the USCIS Customer Service Center.
In light of financial difficulties primarily brought on by its policies and mismanagement, USCIS has sought to increase fees for customers—in essence, requesting more money for less service. On August 3, 2020, USCIS published a final rule adjusting the USCIS fee schedule for certain benefits by over 300 percent. As recognized in Executive Order 14012, this rule “fails to promote access to the legal immigration system.” The rule enacted significant fee hikes that risked pricing countless customers out of immigration benefits such as lawful permanent resident and citizenship applications. The rule also eliminated access to fee waivers for these applications and many others, eliminating a path to immigration benefits for vulnerable customers. While the rule was enjoined before it could become effective on October 2, 2020, the agency has commented that its operations will continue to be affected without additional funding brought by increased fees.
On September 30, 2020, President Trump signed H.R. 8337, the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extensions Act into law, which included language from the Emergency Stopgap USCIS Stabilization Act (title I of division D of Public Law 116–159). It sought to address USCIS’s funding issues by allowing the agency to raise premium processing fees for certain forms, expand premium processing services to additional form types, and allow USCIS to spend premium processing fees on agency operations other than infrastructure improvement. Utilizing the authority it was provided, the agency increased its premium processing fees on October 19, 2020. However, it has not yet taken additional steps in line with the authority provided to further expand premium processing availability to other form types, which would not only help raise revenue but also provide faster processing times. Moreover, the agency has not outlined how it will use the additional revenue to improve its operations. President Biden has demanded that USCIS recommend steps to improve access to the legal immigration system pursuant to the authority granted by this Act.
USCIS must take measures to secure additional funds without significant and detrimental fee increases on the backs of its customers. The agency should reduce cost by rescinding overly burdensome, redundant, and inefficient policies that have led to inefficiencies and unnecessary costs. AILA also recommends that USCIS make use of the additional authority provided by Congress to further expand premium processing services. As required by Congress, AILA encourages USCIS to use this authority while also ensuring that any expansion does not adversely impact the standard processing of other form types, and to develop a thorough plan on how it will reduce case processing times. Finally, AILA recommends that USCIS provide a public accounting of how premium processing funds are being used to ensure that they are being spent in a manner consistent with its statutory mission, rather than on additional enforcement mechanisms.
In early 2018, USCIS eliminated the public use of the SCOPSSCATA@uscis.dhs.gov email address utilized by customers to follow up on case-specific inquiries. This email functioned as an important check on USCIS service centers, allowing customers to alert USCIS Service Center Operations staff about cases where the then National Customer Service Center (NCSC) and respective USCIS service center were either unresponsive or unhelpful in their response to a case-specific inquiry. The agency followed this decision in December 2018 by discontinuing email boxes at its service centers and eliminating Community Relations (CRO) and Community Engagement Officer (CEO) positions, thereby dramatically reducing customers’ ability to engage with agency staff familiar with the content of their cases. Instead, customers are now expected to funnel all requests and follow up through the USCIS Customer Service Center or USCIS Public Engagement, which has proven inefficient and ineffective for many customers, as well as the agency, as it creates additional bureaucratic layers of review to address problematic cases, rather than having the problem addressed immediately at the source.
Without meaningful access to assistance, customers are often left without administrative recourse when a case languishes well outside of the agency’s processing times or when a complex issue or request requires attention from agency staff. Frequently, this results in customers suing the government for inaction in a court of law, which creates additional costs for both the agency and its customers. For many years prior to the agency’s elimination of these email boxes, AILA observed countless case examples resolved through inquiry escalation to the specific service center and SCOPSSCATA email boxes. Even where an inquiry was not resolved, these boxes often provided more substantive information that would inform customers of the status of their case.
AILA encourages USCIS to reopen a tiered inquiry escalation system that allows customers who have already completed a service request through the USCIS Customer Service Center with substantive avenues to address unanswered or unaddressed inquiries. The previous three-tiered email system was not perfect but it did allow customers access to the USCIS service center or local office staff with the best information on their case. It also ensured that USCIS Service Center Operations staff and local leadership had proper oversight of USCIS adjudications. Returning to a tiered escalation system will provide the agency with a mechanism not only to resolve customer issues, but also to provide adequate oversight of its staff to ensure that proper adjudication and inquiry handling protocols are being followed.
Lastly, USCIS should reopen the CRO and CEO email boxes and reassign staff to CRO and CEO roles. These email boxes allow customers to directly reach out to a service center with a complex issue or a problematic trend in order to ensure prompt resolution. In addition, reinstalling community engagement positions will further facilitate engagement with customers on a national and local level and ensure greater transparency at service center locations.
As of the publishing of this brief, the agency has eliminated nearly all of its national and local customer engagement opportunities. The agency will occasionally offer a one-hour long opportunity to listen to members of USCIS’s many directorates provide limited information and scripted answers to questions in a way that does not allow for meaningful dialogue. The agency has also ordered local USCIS offices to reduce or eliminate their engagement with local customers, as well as any specific local processes or procedures set up to address case-specific questions. This is in stark contrast to four years ago when both the national and local USCIS offices maintained robust engagement with the community. National offices offered consistent telephonic and in-person national engagement opportunities, and local offices held regularly scheduled meetings with customers in their communities to address local procedures and offered ways to resolving complex case issues. This type of communication is essential in the highly dynamic environment created by the COVID-19 crisis and rapidly changing immigration policies.
The benefits of this type of engagement are immense, as was witnessed during USCIS’s rollout of the H-1B Registration Tool in 2020, during which USCIS held interactive stakeholder meetings, responded to case-specific inquiries, and provided a number of resources to ensure the success of the new process for both USCIS and its stakeholders. When customers are more informed and able to readily access agency staff and get information on substantive issues, it results in a clearer understanding of agency expectations in the community. During a discussion of previously scheduled quarterly asylum stakeholder events, the CIS Ombudsman noted that engagement may reduce the risk of inadequate filings, the need for Requests for Evidence, and unnecessary anxieties among customers. Instead, the agency has eliminated Community Engagement Officer and Community Relations Officer positions at its services centers and significantly curbed the number of customer questions it addresses during its limited webinars.
USCIS should expeditiously work to restore customer access to its offices at both a national and local level. The importance of public engagement cannot be overstated. It facilitates a greater understanding on the part of customers regarding how the agency functions while giving agency staff valuable insights into problematic adjudication or customer service trends. An example of the importance of customer engagement is demonstrated by the confusion surrounding how USCIS has altered the way it releases updates to its Policy Manual. The agency no longer provides a list of changes that it has made to the Policy Manual, leaving it to customers to compare and contrast new language with previous language, making it harder to determine what has changed. Providing a forum for customers to raise substantive issues or questions concerning agency policies and procedures will reduce frustration and alert the agency to issues that it may not otherwise be aware of.
On March 12, 2019, USCIS indicated its intention to close its 23 international offices, thereby drastically reducing its global footprint and access to important services for customers currently living or stationed overseas. This announcement came as a surprise to many and provided no further information about how the important services handled at USCIS international offices would be affected. These offices offer important services for U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, members of the U.S. military and their families, adopted children and their U.S. citizen parents, refugees, and more. USCIS has since partially reversed this decision, indicating on August 20, 2019, that it would maintain operations at seven international offices in Beijing and Guangzhou, China; Nairobi, Kenya; New Delhi, India; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Mexico City, Mexico; and San Salvador, El Salvador. While, in context, this is welcome news, it does not change the significant impact that the decision to close these offices has had on USCIS customers’ ability to obtain critical services abroad.
USCIS should immediately review its current operations footprint abroad and consider the need for greater access to USCIS services in those areas not covered by the seven offices still being maintained, particularly given President Biden’s order that USCIS facilitate naturalization for eligible candidates abroad and members of the military. AILA understands that this might take some time given the need to scale operations back up in countries where USCIS offices have already closed, but USCIS should work with the Department of State to ensure necessary services are being provided abroad.
In addition to agency action, Congress must continue to ensure that the agency is operating efficiently and effectively, while also ensuring that USCIS’s customers are provided sufficient and timely access to USCIS services at both a national and local level. Many offices are already aware of the agency’s customer service issues, having received countless constituent requests for assistance. AILA urges members of Congress to take the following steps to ensure that USCIS is continually held to account for these issues:
Request regular statistics on USCIS Customer Service Center services. Members of Congress should ensure that USCIS is adhering to its statutory responsibility by consistently requesting information and statistics concerning the USCIS Customer Service Center. Requesting statistics regularly will serve to hold the agency accountable for its services and ensure that delays or inefficiencies do not adversely impact customers. Examples of statistics that should be regularly collected, reviewed by Congress, and made available to the public include:
Service Requests Through Phone System and E-Request:
The InfoMod Program:
Case Backlog and Processing:
Over the last four years, USCIS has distanced itself from its duties to its customers. Through redundant and unnecessary policy changes, it has inflicted upon itself and its customers considerable processing delays and a large backlog of cases. The agency has further insulated itself from the resulting frustration and confusion by significantly reducing its accessibility to customers, walling itself off, and refusing to address the concerns of the very individuals that fund its activities. The agency may have stopped using the word “customer,” but these individuals are still the users and recipients of USCIS’s services, and frequently pay high fees for them. As such, the agency must ensure the quality of the services it provides.
During the Biden administration, it is crucial that those leading USCIS not only take steps to rescind or amend the inefficient, costly, and in some cases destructive policies of the last four years, but also to instruct agency officials to reestablish USCIS’s customer service tools, rescind ineffective and inefficient policies, and ensure that USCIS is held accountable for the continued implementation of its customer service initiatives.
Cite as AILA Doc. No. 21021236.
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