The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship called upon Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials to explain and report on the delays in immigration processing in a hearing on July 16, 2019.

Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal.), who chaired the hearing, wanted an explanation for the 2.4 million application/petition backlog (the largest since the processing delays following the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001). She specifically noted that she hears from:

  • Victims of domestic violence who cannot receive needed immigration benefits;
  • Start-up companies that have had to abandon vital projects because they cannot bring key employees to the United States; and
  • Families suffering from prolonged separations due to increased vetting.

Lofgren focused on the administration’s new policies and procedures that are creating more red tape, burdens on petitioners and applicants, denials, and delays, and she asked about the intent behind these new policies.

The officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reported on some of the factors that may have created the backlog, including fee increases, the 2016 presidential election, and court actions that have continued DACA. USCIS officials posited that these factors have resulted in demand spikes because: (1) individuals try to apply for benefits before fee increases go into effect; (2) the number of lawful permanent residents wishing to naturalize increases prior to presidential elections to enable them to vote; and (3) DACA beneficiaries are (unexpectedly) applying for extensions during the current court-created window. Michael Hoefer, Office of Performance and Quality at USCIS, noted that the reduction in demand anticipated in 2017 following the increased demand in 2016 did not materialize. The elevated levels continued.

USCIS must rely on forecast models on demand to prepare staffing requests in order to appropriate staff and train new employees, the officials explained. Since the models did not account for the continued elevated demand, staffing is currently inadequate.

As noted by both congressmembers and USCIS officials, the backlog had existed prior to the change in administration in 2017. Other factors leading to the current backlog included:

  • New security requirements and policies such as additional interview requirements and security checks;
  • The need for between 18 months and 36 months for delivery of new facilities to accommodate new hires; and
  • The Service’s focus on “quality,” versus “quantity,” of work product.

To address the backlog, officials reported that the following changes are in process or would be helpful to reducing processing times:

  • Increased hiring;
  • Increase in fees to accommodate increased hiring;
  • Transitioning non-adjudicatory work from officers reviewing the cases to non-adjudicatory workers;
  • Centralizing delivery of informational services with the USCIS Contact Center;
  • Reintroducing performance metrics that focus more on quantity;
  • Leveraging technology, including implementing new electronic tools and automation such as eProcessing (although the Service noted that technological upgrades have initial short-term negative effects); and
  • Shifting staffing and workloads to accommodate demand.

Although Lofgren wanted to gain a better understanding of the correlation between the new administration policies and the delays and denials, this was not specifically addressed. USCIS representatives noted that they were well-aware of the current problems and delays, admitting that, despite their best efforts, the backlog has steadily grown due to “an extraordinary and growing demand.” They also explained:

We do not want to leave you thinking that there are quick and easy fixes—there aren’t. Realizing organizational and procedure efficiencies, staffing to appropriate levels, and providing the physical and technological resources needed to eliminate the backlog will take some time . . . . For our part, we are committed to providing [staff] with the tools and resources they need to get the work done.

Jackson Lewis will provide updates regarding processing delays and backlogs as they become available.