No End in Sight: New Analysis Shows USCIS Case Processing Backlog Keeps Growing

Even before the COVID-19 virus, backlogs and processing delays were staggering at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). They have continued to grow thanks to burdensome policies and inefficient procedures that needlessly bog down the adjudications process. In addition, the agency’s lack of transparency hinders congressional oversight of its activities and leaves the public with very little information as to what the agency is actually doing. This Sunshine Week, I want to shine a light on these delays.

As a new AILA policy brief describes, over the course of just two years—from Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 to FY 2019—the average case processing time at USCIS rose by 25 percent (from eight months to 10 months). This spike in processing times occurred even though the number of cases received during the same two-year period fell by 10 percent.

One USCIS policy in particular that has contributed to the upward trend in average processing times is the in-person interview requirement for all employment-based Form I-485 Applications to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status and Form I-730 Refugee/Asylee Relative Petitions. Before October 1, 2017, the decision to interview these applicants was made on a case-by-case basis. Now, interviews are mandatory in all cases, even when there are no concerns regarding eligibility or fraud.

Is anyone surprised that because of that mandatory interview requirement, the average processing time for an employment-based Form I-485 jumped from 8.1 months in FY 2017 to 12.8 months in FY 2019? Likewise, the processing time for a Form I-730 increased from 7.8 months to over 12 months.

Given the COVID-19 national emergency, it is important now more than ever that USCIS waive unnecessary interview and biometrics requirements and roll-back policies that needlessly hamper the ability of USCIS in getting its job done, individuals acquiring legal status, and businesses getting necessary employees. But let’s be clear, they were never necessary and should be ended permanently.

These sorts of processing delays have negative consequences for both families and businesses. Family members can’t plan for the future if they are waiting an inordinate amount of time to learn the fate of an application they have submitted either for themselves or their relatives. Members of vulnerable populations in particular, who may have experienced serious trauma, are saddled with the added anxiety of not knowing if or when their applications will be approved. And businesses may have to function at reduced staffing levels while they wait for USCIS to process work authorization applications.

Adding insult to injury, USCIS wants to make applicants pay more for this declining level of service. In November 2019, the agency proposed a new fee schedule that would raise fees, on average, by 21 percent. Applications for work authorization and travel authorization would go up in price 75 percent, while naturalization applications would cost 80 percent more. Fee increases of this magnitude will put many application types beyond the financial reach of many people.

In a time that the U.S. economy is struggling due to a national crisis, USCIS should be improving the quality of those services, rather than raising the cost of its services.  Perhaps the most obvious way to do that would be to rescind the in-person interview requirement for all employment-based I-485s and I-730s.

Beyond that, the agency would benefit from robust congressional oversight of its policies and operations. In that regard, AILA urges Congress to pass the bipartisan Case Backlog and Transparency Act of 2020, introduced by Representative Tony Cardenas (D-CA) and Representative Steve Stivers (R-OH) on February 26, 2020. Recognizing the need for transparency, data, and good governance these two members of Congress put aside partisan politics to come together and ensure that USCIS meets its statutory mission of adjudicating immigration benefits timely and efficiently. The bill addresses USCIS’s case processing delays and establishes new reporting requirements designed to illuminate the causes of the backlog, as well as possible solutions to turn the tide on increasing processing delays.

USCIS has sacrificed efficiency and effectiveness for the sake of onerous policies and procedures that serve no compelling purpose. The resulting delays and backlogs are unfair not only to applicants for immigration benefits, but to their families and employers as well. Clearly now more than ever, USCIS needs to revamp the way it adjudicates applications, and it needs to do so publicly and rationally.

by Benjamin Johnson