When mention of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) comes up in certain circles, it is often treated as a four-letter word. It conjures up recent memories of torturous procedures, lengthy delays, and a lack of customer service. As someone who spent a significant portion of her career at USCIS, for me, the mention of USCIS usually raises memories of hard working and passionate colleagues dedicated to the statutory mission of USCIS. However, recently such positive “sentiments” are being replaced with disappointment and concern for an agency that I hold near and dear to my heart, as its financial viability is in jeopardy, in large part due to its own fiscal mismanagement and inefficient policies. The USCIS I remember, and know well, isn’t this.
I began working for USCIS’s Office of Chief Counsel in the final year of the George W. Bush administration. I was hired during an effort to beef up staff in response to significant case processing delays (sound familiar?). In FY 2008, Congress appropriated $20,000,000 specifically for USCIS to eliminate the naturalization case backlog. By June 2009, USCIS had announced that the backlog had been eliminated through a concerted effort by staff to ensure an efficient and timely process. Throughout most of my career at USCIS, any time new policies and procedures were being discussed, there was an informal, but almost automatic reflex to sincerely consider the operational impact it would have on adjudications and the overall effect it would have on the budget. USCIS is a large bureaucracy, with many departments, but most had seats at the table when policies and procedures were being considered. Often from the outside, this deliberation was viewed as slow and inefficient, with the government taking too long to get necessary policies implemented. But, on the flip side, necessary time was given to all the voices at the table to ensure that policies were rolled out in the least burdensome way.
Things changed in 2017 when a new group of political leadership took the reins. As new policy measures were being discussed, I remember distinctly being told by a political appointee “operational concerns don’t matter.” It became clear, very quickly, that operational, legal, and financial concerns were no longer co-equal voices at the table, but rather policy and vetting took the favored child status. Not even its statutory duty stood in the way, as long as the campaign promises were delivered upon. This is not “inside” information that I am sharing, it is written into the invisible wall of policies and procedures that have been erected over the past few years, including:
- Elimination of a decades-long policy to give deference to prior adjudications that were materially the same.
- Mandating in-person interviews for all employment-based adjustment and refugee/asylee relative petitions, even when eligibility was not in question.
- Unprecedented issuance of requests for evidence, often for information that was already provided or not relevant to the case.
- Publication of overly burdensome and complex regulations, such as the public charge rule.
These are just to a name a few. The result is skyrocketing case processing times, despite an overall decrease in receipts and an increase in personnel. When I began working for USCIS in 2008, it was already a behemoth of an organization with more than 16,000 employees across the country. By fiscal year 2020, that number had ballooned to over 20,000 with a continued projection to exceed more than 21,000 employees in Fiscal Year 2021. This is despite knowing months ago that the agency would be in a $1.5 billion dollar hole by the end of this fiscal year, even though it had an $800 million surplus just a few years ago. Clearly something doesn’t add up – if you hire more people, who have less cases to adjudicate, it seems like your processing times would be in check – unless of course those individuals are busy doing something else.
That “something else” is veering away from its statutory mission. The Homeland Security Act established USCIS in 2003 to focus exclusively on the administration of immigration benefit applications and established Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to handle immigration enforcement and border security functions. Yet, the current leader of USCIS, Kenneth Cuccinelli claims that “we are not a benefit agency, we are a vetting agency.” So, as the agency collects money paid by its customers for the adjudication of applications, rather than doing its statutorily mandated work, I saw firsthand USCIS personnel being detailed to other agencies and spending more time on enforcement priorities.
Clearly, that is a bad and unethical business model. Yet, USCIS leadership simply gets to put its hand out and ask for more than $1 billion, while at the same time passing off the costs of its own inefficiencies to its customers by proposing to significantly increase fees and adding a 10 percent surcharge on top of that to pay back its bailout.
THIS CANNOT CONTINUE. Ultimately, failure of USCIS may be the goal of some in this administration. But we cannot let USCIS fail, as it plays an important role in our immigration system. We cannot let it fail because the tens of thousands of employees whose jobs are at stake are hard-working individuals who are being treated as pawns by the administration. My former colleagues who are still there don’t deserve to lose their livelihoods because of political gamesmanship and fiscal mismanagement.
Congress must act. But before considering giving a dime to USCIS, Congress must ensure that the agency is transparent about its spending, accountable for its inefficiencies, and on track towards fiscal responsibility. This is an important opportunity for oversight into USCIS operations, an agency that has flown under the Congressional radar for years because it is not reliant on appropriations. Congress must pass the bi-partisan Case Backlog and Transparency Act of 2020, H.R 5971, along with other measures to get the agency back to what it was when it could perform efficiently enough to pull itself out of backlogs in a few short years.
You can act now by urging your Congressperson to ensure that any funding that USCIS receives is conditioned on transparency, accountability and strict oversight. Funding should only be given if USCIS pulls itself up by its own bootstraps to reduce inefficiencies and generate income.
Want to learn more about what Congress should do? Read more in the recommendations to Congressional appropriators submitted by AILA and the American Immigration Council or watch this Quicktake Video featuring Associate Director of Government Relations Diane Rish.