Newly released U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data has cast an even harsher glare on the agency’s well-documented failure to process its caseload in a timely fashion.
On January 30, 2019, AILA published an analysis of USCIS statistics showing that case processing delays have reached crisis levels under the Trump administration. Among other findings, AILA determined that USCIS’s “overall average case processing time” grew by 19 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2018 alone, with harmful consequences for families, vulnerable populations, and U.S. businesses throughout the country. That same day, in response to media inquiries on the report, a USCIS spokesperson appeared to attribute delays in significant part to the agency’s case receipt volume. He asserted, “[t]he truth is that, while many factors relating to an individual’s case can affect processing times, waits are often due to higher application rates rather than slow processing.”
Yet earlier this week, the agency disclosed that overall USCIS application rates were far from “higher” in FY 2018 compared to the prior year. To the contrary, the total volume of cases filed with USCIS fell from 8,530,722 in FY 2017 to 7,527,851 in FY 2018—an approximately 13% drop. That’s more than a million fewer cases and the lowest quantity in at least the past four fiscal years. The takeaway is clear: case processing delays rose by a wide margin in FY 2018, even as application rates fell substantially.
This disclosure strengthens indications that misguided, inefficient USCIS policies imposed under the Trump administration have played an outsize role in the agency’s ballooning case backlog. Already, DHS acknowledged to Congress that its policies have contributed to that growth. And last month, Members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to USCIS Director Francis Cissna asking USCIS to identify “all policies introduced under the current administration that have contributed to the USCIS case backlog” and to “provide all analyses performed by the agency on how these policies impact processing times.” Members specifically sought information on processing time implications of the administration’s adoption of “extreme vetting,” of its in-person interview requirement for employment-based green card applicants as well as many relatives of asylees and refugees, and of its rescission of longstanding guidance that directed adjudicators to give deference to certain prior case determinations. Further, the letter requests an explanation of how USCIS “intend[s] to reduce and ultimately eliminate processing delays, while ensuring fairness and quality of adjudications, and without passing the costs of the agency’s inefficiencies onto the applicants and petitioners experiencing hardship due to USCIS’s crisis-level delays.”
Congress and the public need prompt answers to these questions. As time passes, USCIS processing delays are only growing worse. Following the publication of AILA’s analysis—which examined nationwide USCIS processing time data from fiscal years 2014 through 2018—the agency released information showing that, through the first quarter of FY 2019, its “overall average case processing time” as calculated by AILA had continued to grow. For example, the nationwide average processing time for employment-based green card applications (Form I-485) expanded by 11% during that quarter, from an average of 11 months at the end of FY 2018 to 12.2 months through December 31, 2018. Growth in delays was even more conspicuous for special immigrant petitions (Form I-360). Through these petitions, domestic abuse survivors—among other individuals seeking humanitarian relief—can obtain lasting protection and legal immigration status. At the end of FY 2018, USCIS was processing I-360s in an average of 13.5 months. As of December 31, 2018, that average had risen to 16.8 months—representing an increase of almost 25% in just three months’ time and an overall increase of 350% since the end of FY 2016. Every day that these delays drag on is another day that survivors could face violence and torture at the hands of their abusers.
USCIS’s emphasis of application rates when answering media inquiries on its runaway delays—even though those rates have substantially declined—highlights the inadequacy of the agency’s response to its systemic operational failures. The millions enduring hardship due to USCIS delays—from families struggling to make ends meet, to protection seekers facing danger, to American businesses unable to fill critical workforce gaps—deserve better from an agency whose statutory purpose is to effectively administer immigration benefits. USCIS owes them—it owes the nation—immediate and full accountability. There’s no time to lose.
 The “All USCIS Applications and Form Types” data on the linked USCIS webpage spans FY 2012 through FY 2018. However, for reasons unknown, year-end “All USCIS Applications and Form Types” data for FY 14 is not available on the webpage.