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USCIS Ombudsman Highlights Agency Backlogs and Funding Challenges in Annual Report to Congress

The USCIS Ombudsman’s Annual Report describes USCIS’s increasingly severe application backlogs and emphasizes the need for congressional appropriations and increased application fees in order to improve the agency’s operations. As of April 2022, USCIS had 8.5 million pending applications for immigration benefits, over 5 million of which are considered “backlogged” by the agency. The Ombudsman’s Office saw a 79% increase in requests for USCIS case assistance in 2021 from the previous year, due in part to delayed adjudications.

The issue

In her Annual Report to Congress, USCIS Ombudsman Phyllis Coven focuses heavily on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) increasing application backlog and processing delays, and the need for agency funding beyond the current application fee-funded model. The report is issued annually by the Ombudsman’s Office, an independent body created by Congress to recommend improvements to the delivery of citizenship and immigration services and assist immigrants and nonimmigrants facing problems with pending cases. 

A closer look

This year’s USCIS Ombudsman report confirms the experience of employers and foreign nationals seeking immigration benefits from USCIS, emphasizing delayed adjudications across nearly all application types, and the resulting inability of foreign nationals to work, travel and move forward in their immigration processes.

According to the report, with 8.5 million pending applications at USCIS as of April 2022, over 5 million of which pending beyond published processing times, USCIS will require both operational changes and increased funding and staffing in order to improve the agency’s functioning. As a result of the agency backlog and its effect on employers and foreign nationals, the Ombudsman’s office has seen a 79% increase in case assistance requests in 2021 over the prior year – a total of 26,097 requests in 2021. The USCIS Office of Legislative Affairs expects to receive almost 170,000 congressional inquiries in FY 2022 (ending September 30, 2022) – a 34% increase over FY 2021.

Recommendations in the Annual Report include administrative and operational measures that could mitigate the impact of agency backlogs, such as further changes in the employment authorization document (EAD) renewal process, granting more travel flexibility in connection with Advance Parole (AP) document adjudication, and improving the existing application expedite process. However, the report also states that implementation of operational measures alone will be insufficient to address the resource and processing challenges facing USCIS, and that more funding and staff are needed. The Ombudsman recently issued a separate set of formal recommendations, repeated in the Annual Report, urging the agency to revise its fee review process and staffing allocation models and to seek congressional appropriations to cover the cost of humanitarian-related immigration benefits and address application backlogs.

What’s ahead for USCIS

USCIS is not required to implement Ombudsman recommendations, but is required to formally respond to the Annual Report.  Prior to issuance of the Ombudsman report, in spring 2022, USCIS leadership announced that its FY 2023 budget request includes a request for $389 million in congressional appropriations to increase its adjudicative capacity and address backlogs. The agency also announced it is engaging in a robust hiring effort to fill approximately 4,000 open positions across the agency. In a further effort to address USCIS’s fiscal issues, the agency is scheduled to publish a new proposed rule in September 2022, to increase fees and recover the agency’s recent operating costs. The rule will need to move through the notice and comment rulemaking process prior to implementation.

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