Earlier this month, USCIS responded to a February 2019 letter sent by 86 Members of the House of Representatives who demanded accountability for the agency’s crisis-level processing delays. This response yields some of the clearest evidence to date that USCIS’s own misguided policies are key drivers of the processing slowdown harming millions of individuals, families, and U.S. businesses throughout the country.
USCIS’s letter reveals that in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, the agency’s “gross backlog”—its overall volume of delayed applications and petitions—reached a staggering 5,691,839 cases. That figure marks a 29 percent increase since FY2016 and a 69 percent increase since FY2014. Crucially, this inventory rose from FY2017 to FY2018 despite a substantial decline in application rates and an uptick in budget during that period. The agency had more resources with which to process fewer incoming cases, yet its gross backlog still grew.
Regrettably, USCIS’s letter falls well short of achieving full transparency into the reasons behind this expanding case processing crisis. Among other gaps, the letter fails to meaningfully address the impacts of the agency’s rescission of its longstanding deference policy, as well as of “extreme vetting” outside of the refugee application context. But it does disclose important information previously unavailable to the public while touching on a host of issues—from office realignment to adjudication digitization—that warrant further inquiry.
Of central concern is data contained in the letter regarding “USCIS completions per hour.” The agency has noted that these completion rates measure the “average hours per adjudication of an immigration benefit request. They identify the adjudicative time required to complete (render a decision on) specific immigration benefit request types…Completion rates reflect what is termed ‘touch time’ or the time an…employee with adjudicative responsibilities actually handles the case.”
This metric offers a partial, but still helpful, window into USCIS efficiency—or inefficiency. It does not capture all the ways in which the agency’s actions influence case processing. For instance, delays resulting from the issuance of Requests for Evidence are not accounted for in this measure. Yet as examined below, these rates do reflect in significant part the impacts on adjudication time of various USCIS policies and practices. An understanding of trends and factors associated with these rates, therefore, yields insights into the backlog’s continued growth. In fact, in an April 2018 report, the administration conceded that “declining completions per hour limit our ability to reduce the current overall backlog.”
The April 2019 USCIS letter reveals just how broadly those completions rates have declined. Altogether, case completions per hour decreased for 79 percent of immigration benefit types from FY2014 to FY2018 and for 81 percent of immigration benefit form types from FY2016 to FY2018. Some of these decreases are startling. For example, from FY2016 to FY2018, the case completion rate for petitions for temporary workers (Form I-129) decreased from .97 cases per hour to .64—a 34 percent drop. During that same span, the case completion rate for U visa and derivative applications (Form I-918/I-918A) fell from .5 cases per hour to .26—an almost 50 percent plunge.
The administration has cited a number of policies and practices associated with declining completion rates. In April 2018, it identified, among other things, the “increasing complexity and length of forms” (an August 2017 comparison by David Bier of the Cato Institute shows the widespread expansion in USCIS form length) and “increased security checks” as part of the agency’s overall “increasing complexity of work,” which “correlates to the decrease in completions per hour.” And in its April 2019 letter, USCIS concedes that its in-person interview requirements for applicants seeking green cards under their employers (through employment-based Form I-485) and relatives of asylees and refugees seeking family reunification (through Form I-730)—which the agency began implementing in 2017—“are reducing the completions per hour because of the additional time required for interviews, which is contributing to increased cycle times and the backlog.” USCIS also provides data showing that from FY2016 to FY2018, the completion rate for employment-based I-485s declined by approximately 16 percent. In that same timeframe, the rate for I-730s fell by 33 percent. This is critical: USCIS is both expressly acknowledging that its policy changes have exacerbated processing delays and sharing data demonstrating exactly that.
As AILA has emphasized, these sweeping in-person interview requirements are not only delay-inducing, they’re unnecessary. Under prior agency policy, USCIS officers had discretion to require in-person interviews on a case-by-case basis, where, for instance, applications presented fraud or national security concerns. The current policy mandates interviews indiscriminately, sapping adjudicative resources that the agency could otherwise direct toward backlog reduction.
Unfortunately, USCIS is ratcheting up wasteful, far-reaching interview requirements as well as other policies and practices that it has now publicly recognized as drivers of falling completion rates and rising processing times. In December 2018, USCIS made broad changes to its Form I-751 interview policy that are expected to compel significantly more in-person interviews for spouses of U.S. citizens who are seeking permanent residency. And the administration has proposed a public charge “wealth test” that if implemented, would dramatically elevate the paperwork and complexity involved in most I-485 adjudications. These represent only a few of the numerous examples of unwarranted hurdles that USCIS is introducing throughout the legal immigration system.
These continuing developments make further USCIS transparency and accountability all the more imperative. The agency’s letter—including its content on completion rates—is eye-opening but ultimately insufficient. The public needs a full assessment from USCIS—as well as from the independent Government Accountability Office—of how current and proposed USCIS measures have impacted, and will impact, completion rates, processing times, and the backlog. And Congress, for its part, should promptly hold hearings addressing the agency’s case processing crisis.
There is now more evidence than ever that USCIS policies are undermining the agency’s statutory mandate to efficiently process applications and petitions for immigration benefits. For this, and for the hardships borne by millions of backlogged individuals and employers, USCIS must be held to account.
 AILA counts each form broken out separately by USCIS in its case completion data as a distinct form type. For instance, as USCIS separately lists seven different types of Form I-485, AILA counts each as a discrete form type. For form types for which USCIS does not provide completion rates in certain fiscal years, AILA bases its analysis solely on the rates associated with later periods.