Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Exacerbated USCIS Backlogs and Processing Delays
By statute, the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman submits an Annual Report to Congress by June 30 of each year. The Office of the Ombudsman’s Annual Report provides a summary of the most pervasive and serious problems encountered by individuals and employers applying for immigration benefits with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and reviews past recommendations to improve USCIS programs and services.
The Office of the Ombudsman’s 2021 Annual Report details that the pandemic compounded USCIS’ already-strained processing and fiscal situation, with the agency now experiencing backlogs of applications and petitions “at record levels,” as well as drastically reduced “customer service functions.” The aforementioned is in most part due to temporary office closures, reduced staffing, and lack of end-to-end electronic processing capabilities for many benefit types. Near-total shutdown of the agency’s offices in March 2020 also significantly affected already-low receipts and fee revenue insufficient to cover operating costs and led to mass cancellation of in-person interviews, biometrics appointments, and oath ceremonies.
The Office of the Ombudsman’s 2021 Annual Report details that USCIS field offices were only gradually reopened at limited capacity—with reduced services and fewer staff—starting in June 2020. All USCIS field offices were open by October 2020 but were offering services at only about 50% capacity at that time. As a result, backlogs and processing times grew substantially throughout 2020. Due to temporary office closures and reduced staffing, USCIS cancelled roughly 280,000 interviews at the start of the pandemic. But the agency lacked the staff to reschedule all of these interviews in a timely fashion because, even after reopening, application support centers were operating at 65% or 70% capacity at best. According to USCIS statistics, approximately seven million applications and petitions were pending as of March 31, 2021. Additionally, the report states that the agency’s backlog was significantly exacerbated for two reasons: first, applicants and petitioners rushed to file before a proposed fee increase was due to take effect Oct. 2, 2020 (although the increase was never actually implemented); and second, after the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2020, thousands of applicants filed all at once when their priority dates became current. Since USCIS offices were still operating at reduced staffing levels during October 2020, there were not enough personnel to process all the new applications and petitions.
The Office of the Ombudsman’s 2021 Annual Report makes a number of recommendations as to how the agency can best work through its backlog, first recommending that the agency not rely entirely on fees to fund its operations, as fees are inherently unpredictable. The report recommends some combination of fee revenue and congressionally appropriated funding to enable the agency to effectively improve operational deficiencies. The Biden administration agrees that USCIS requires additional funding, and President Biden’s first budget allotted $350 million to USCIS for backlog reduction purposes. On June 30, 2021, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2022 Homeland Security funding bill, which included $474.5 million for USCIS, an increase of $346.7 million above the fiscal year 2021 enacted level. However, until this bill is passed, USCIS may struggle to resolve its backlogs and processing time delays. The Office of the Ombudsman’s 2021 Annual Report also details that USCIS has made strides in expanding online filing and digital adjudications, but its goal of an end-to-end electronic strategy has yet to be fully achieved.