What's New in the World of Immigration?

08/01/2019 - How to Shrink the USCIS Backlog in One Minute or Less

By: Jason Boyd, Policy Counsel with AILA’s Government Relations department.

Imagine if a multi-billion-dollar entity that has chronically failed to meet core organizational goals—a failure causing hardship for millions of customers—touted to those customers a “solution:” laxer goals.

This is no hypothetical. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency whose failure to timely process applications for immigration benefits is burdening millions of individuals, families, and American businesses nationwide, is now championing lowered standards for case processing as one solution.

During a July 16 Congressional hearing on its crisis-level case backlog, USCIS outlined various prongs of a backlog reduction plan—some of them constructive, others unacceptable. Its aim to “Redefine Processing Time Goals to Better Reflect True Cycle Times” falls squarely into the latter category. USCIS’s testimony indicates that, at minimum, the agency could lengthen the green card application processing time goal, currently set at 120 days.

While relaxation of this and other processing time benchmarks would technically reduce the backlog as USCIS commonly measures it, it would not improve actual processing times or the lives of applicants. The agency defines its “net backlog”—which officials often call simply “the backlog”—as the number of cases not adjudicated within processing time goals. Cases that USCIS cannot presently act on, such as applications with outstanding requests for supplemental evidence, are excluded from this figure.

Under this definition, the size of USCIS’s net backlog hinges on the processing time goals self-assigned by the agency. Faster goals would instantly increase the backlog by pushing more pending cases outside target thresholds. Slower goals would automatically shrink it. The new benchmarks would not necessarily shift processing times themselves, just USCIS’s determination of whether those times constitute a delay. In fact, even if processing times spike, laxer goals could send the net backlog into freefall. That plunge could project a misleading impression of improved agency performance, masking continued deterioration of USCIS services along with heightened customer hardship.

But this “solution” is troubling not just because it solves nothing. It also conveys an unwillingness to accept accountability for, and even promotes normalization of, the agency’s systemic failure to process cases efficiently. To “Redefine Processing Time Goals to Better Reflect True Cycle Times” is to change goals to accommodate underperformance rather than to change performance to meet goals. During the July 16 hearing, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) underscored this point. He observed that, during his tenure as Executive Director of a consumer protection agency in Colorado, “it would not be received well if I said well, I’m going to simply change the processing time because we can’t meet it.”

USCIS offers unconvincing justifications for moving its goalposts. It cites a July 2018 report in which DHS’s Office of Inspector General found that the 120-day green card application processing time goal was “unrealistic.” But the report based this conclusion on USCIS adjudications as they are currently administered without meaningfully assessing their efficiency. As AILA has documented, inefficient policies pervade those adjudications. Such measures include an unnecessary in-person interview requirement for all employment-based green card applicants that, by the agency’s own admission, has slowed case processing since its implementation in October 2017. It should come as no surprise that wasteful, time-intensive policies like this one would render existing processing time goals less tenable. Rather than fix the policies, however, USCIS has resolved to loosen the goals.

USCIS also maintains that revisions to processing time goals “would set more realistic timelines for the public on how long they should expect to wait.” But those goals are distinct from the “current processing times” that USCIS provides on its website as a public tool for identifying normal processing periods for green card cases and other form types. If the agency wants to better manage expectations, it should provide more transparent and accurate data on current processing rather than water down its performance objectives.

The millions of backlogged individuals, families, and U.S. businesses need meaningful solutions to the agency’s crisis-level delays. Lowered standards are not among them. As a starting point, USCIS should reverse inefficient policies and practices, like the referenced in-person interview requirement, that comprise core drivers of the backlog. And Congress should swiftly pass legislation that, by strengthening USCIS transparency and accountability, helps promote timely adjudications.

Ultimately, our nation of immigrants cannot and will not accept a normalization of delays. We deserve a USCIS that rises to its processing time goals, not one that runs from them.