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What is the Biden Administration’s plan to reduce crisis level immigration backlogs?

The LIBRE initiative joined a coalition of over a dozen organizations in a letter calling on the Biden administration to publicize a plan to streamline processing at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services  and to disclose how it is spending the over $400 million that it received in congressional funds.

As national attention on immigration continues to revolve around issues like addressing the crisis at the border, protecting our Afghan allies, and providing permanent relief to Dreamers, there has been little focus on the fact that none of these reforms are likely to succeed if the agency tasked with implementing them can’t even handle its current obligations.

Why does USCIS have immigration backlogs?

According to a 2021 audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an accumulation of bureaucratic inefficiencies, including lengthened application forms and duplicative interview requirements, has caused U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’s (USCIS) pending caseload to balloon by 85 percent from 2015 to 2019.

In a following investigation  from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in December 2021, investigators found that another contributing factor was USCIS ’s failure to digitize most of its operations. The report found that the backlog now stands at 3.8 million cases.

Such backlogs have disenfranchised the millions  of U.S. communities, workers, and families who rely on the agency each year. For example, even though it takes only 12 minutes for USCIS to adjudicate a work permit, applicants who once waited three months for work authorization are now waiting nearly 2 years.

As a result, countless professionals across the country, including doctors, nurses, truck drivers, and technicians, have all lost their jobs.

This comes during a time where inflation is at a near 40-year high, and labor shortages are exhausting health care workers and making it increasingly difficult for Americans to afford things like food, home heating, and electronics.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of green cards are being thrown away simply because USCIS can’t adjudicate them all in time.

Having narrowly averted insolvency and massive furloughs in August 2020, the agency is still mired in red tape that makes processing applications slower and more expensive.

Because roughly 97 percent of USCIS’s revenue comes from user fees, applicants are essentially paying for the wall of regulations that prevent them from working and staying in the U.S.

What reforms would help fix the backlogs?

In August of 2020, Congress unanimously voted to pass the Emergency Stopgap USCIS Stabilization Act, which required USCIS to release a five-year plan to reduce backlogged visa petitions. The letter points out that although the plan was due over nine months ago, USCIS has yet to publicly release one.

The letter also mentions that USCIS has taken more than a year to follow through with another provision of the bill, which authorized the agency to expand premium processing to numerous visas and other petitions.

If implemented, premium processing would enable applicants to pay more money for quicker service, allowing the agency to raise as much as $685 million-$1.06 billion in annual fee revenue 

While premium processing expansion would allow USCIS to remain self-reliant in the long-term, Congress also appropriated $250 million to help the agency reduce immediate backlogs and an additional $193 million to help evacuate Afghan allies.

As such, the letter also calls on the administration to make its expenditure plans for these appropriations available to the public as soon as possible.

With agency backlogs increasing and the recent USCIS decision to reject most humanitarian applications from Afghan evacuees, such transparency is more than warranted.

So long as USCIS remains dysfunctional, it’s difficult to imagine how the agency can ever be accountable to our Afghan allies.

As USCIS struggles to process DACA renewals in time, one wonders how the same agency can oversee providing the broader Dreamer population with a pathway to permanent residency.

And as President Joe Biden plans to alleviate pressure at the border, his otherwise smart policy of allowing asylum officers to fully adjudicate asylum claims will add further stress to the agency. A fiscally prudent and responsive USCIS is the backbone for all immigration reform and must be a primary objective for both Congress and the president.