Is USCIS really not processing green card applications?


Outstanding reporting by Tanvi Misra in Roll Call last week uncovered memos that state that U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service has “stopped” processing applications for residence.  While we have not seen the memos at issue, we are going to try to piece together what it means.  In our opinion, it is not as nefarious as it seems, though it sure is bad.

Let’s start with this basic premise: this administration is resolutely and completely anti-immigrant.  They are not simply against “illegal immigration” as you hear so many nativists say; they are against all immigrants.  They have expanded their use of detention, stopped refugee and immigrant flow from across the globe, undermined asylum law and the systems of protection for the vast majority of asylum seekers, made every single application and petition a fight to the death, sought to denaturalize citizens at a faster clip than any previous administration, and politically interfered in the independent operations of immigration courts to an unprecedented degree.  They are not just against “illegal immigrants,” they are waging a war against all immigrants.

The halt in processing applications stems from an action that the Trump administration took early in his presidency.  For as long as anyone can remember, the CIS has waived the personal interview requirement for nearly all employment based immigration cases.  This allowed CIS to process more cases as it avoided the use of resources in cases where interviews were not really useful at uncovering any new information.

Enter the pandemic which forced USCIS to close its offices to the public in March.  For three months, the USCIS could not complete any green card cases because all cases required interview.  Rather than change their policy to allow for approval without interview– work that could have carried on during the pandemic– they simply stopped working on green card cases as those cases could not be completed.  While they could have done the work to get them ready for interview, “ready for interview” is not a performance metric.  CIS gets no credit for putting cases in position to be completed, only for completing them.

Now, the USCIS is reopening, but under very different conditions than when they shut down in March.  Procedures required to avoid the spread of Coronavirus mean that USCIS offices will only be able to complete a fraction of the interviews they completed before the pandemic.  So far, since the CIS has announced reopening, we have only seen interviews for citizenship and notices of oath ceremonies which were cancelled during the pandemic.  (Speaking of oath ceremonies, this is another area where a touch of creativity during the pandemic could have gone a long way.v  While DHS spends hundreds of millions to detain and conduct deportation hearings for people all across the country, it could not find a way to spend money to complete oath ceremonies for people already deemed to qualify for citizenship.  This speaks volumes about the agency.)

As long as a reduced workflow occurs due to the pandemic and as long as CIS clings to the rule that everyone must be interviewed, it is reasonable to expect that green card cases will take much longer than people expected when they filed.  The difference between a slowdown and a stop at this point is almost a distinction without a difference.

When might CIS resume processing green cards?  It is hard to be optimistic.  CIS mismanagement has resulted in a well-publicized funding deficit.  Extraordinary mismanagement by the agency has resulted in thew news that the CIS will run out of funding sometime next month.  CIS is stating that they will have to furlough sizable portions of their personnel unless Congress grants them additional funding.  For an agency that has always been funded entirely by applicant fees, this is the first time that CIS has raised the specter of mass furlough and default.  CIS attributes this to a 61% drop in applications filed during the pandemic.  If it is, in fact, true that a drop off in applications has caused the shortfall, it is difficult to understand why the CIS could not either eliminate or reduce their backlogs over the last three months.

The truth is that CIS is a mess, as is the entire DHS.  The agencies have been horribly mismanaged and there is no sign that it is getting any better.  CIS refuses to take steps that would save it funds and allow adjudicators to handle more cases in a more timely manner and now asks taxpayers to bail it out from its terrible decision-making.  It is hard to imagine that this situation- green card hold or not- will get any better until the government is run by more competent people.  Choice is yours in November.

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