CLINIC Summary of the 2019 CIS Ombudsman Annual Report to Congress
The Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman is required by law to issue an annual report to Congress about U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, problems they have addressed throughout the year. The following is CLINIC’s summary of the Ombudsman’s 2019 Annual Report to Congress.
The Ombudsman provided an overview of its work in 2018 and addressed five topics in depth: (1) the H-1B program, (2) the Information Services Modernization Program, or InfoMod, (3) the Asylum Vetting Center, (4) eProcessing, and (5) delays in Employment Authorization Document, or EAD, processing. The report also provides updates on USCIS’s responses to previous years’ recommendations. Because CLINIC’s network focuses on family-based and humanitarian immigration law, we have omitted the H-1B topic and some recommendation updates from this summary.
Ombudsman 2018 Overview
In calendar year 2018, the Ombudsman’s Case Team of approximately nine analysts reviewed and worked 11,294 requests of case assistance submitted by the public, an increase of 2% from the previous year. The Ombudsman used expedited processing for more than 23% of these cases. More than half of the expedited cases were related to Employment Authorization Documents, or EADs. The Ombudsman also conducted 76 stakeholder engagements and hosted nine teleconferences with stakeholders to provide information and receive feedback on issues and policy trends.
The InfoMod Program
USCIS incrementally rolled out InfoMod at five field offices in March 2018, seeking to centralize requests for appointments at USCIS field offices and limit appointments to applicants who “truly require in-person interaction.”
The Ombudsman Report states, “While the InfoMod program is already demonstrating some benefits, stakeholders have expressed concern that the changes… will not provide the same level of service and assistance they feel is necessary.” The report makes the following recommendations to USCIS:
- Enhance quality assurance monitoring standards, specifically to review calls where appointment requests were denied to improve the criteria to access appointments or higher levels of assistance;
- Work toward establishing convenient windows of time for call-backs to applicants and representatives to improve the rate of successful returned calls;
- Educate potential users on continued improvements to myUSCIS;
- Allow attorneys and accredited representatives from the same law firm or organization as the attorney of record to engage with the agency;
- Update the InfoPass appointment guidance to the contact center to include procedures for escalating calls that require immediate attention; and
- Conduct a strategic evaluation of applicant support services every three years.
The Asylum Vetting Center
Based on a 2015 recommendation from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, USCIS has created the Asylum Vetting Center, or AVC, a centralized pre-screening center for affirmative asylum adjudications, with the stated goal of reducing fraud. AVC is currently operating on a limited basis with 38 asylum and Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate staff and is expected to be fully operational by March 2021, with a planned capacity of 250 federal employees and 100 contractors. The functions of AVC will include:
- Receipting and pre-screening all new asylum filings for public safety and national security threats;
- Supporting national large-scale fraud investigations; and
- Coordinating national backlog reduction efforts by centralizing file management, distribution of cases and reviewing post-adjudication asylum termination requests.
USCIS announced in October 2018 its goal to shift from paper-based to end-to-end digital filing, adjudication and storage of immigration applications and petitions by December 2020. The Ombudsman report noted the challenges USCIS has encountered in previous automation attempts. USCIS expects eProcessing to result in fewer rejections for filing deficiencies and would “ideally” allow only those “actually eligible” to submit applications. USCIS ultimately intends to communicate with filers exclusively through the myUSCIS web portal.
The Ombudsman noted several challenges and made recommendations for the rollout of USCIS’s eProcessing plan:
- Potential technology failures including loss of network connection would pose a challenge — thus, USCIS should clearly identify, track and measure system disruptions;
- USCIS should expand and fully staff an IT support office to assist both internal and external users, particularly ensuring the ability to document if a time-sensitive filing was delayed by a technical issue;
- Mandatory eProcessing is USCIS’s goal, but it should phase in mandatory online filing slowly to ensure system stability and capacity are sufficient for the volume;
- USCIS should promptly coordinate with third-party legal case management vendors as eProcessing rolls out;
- Public engagement must have sufficient resources to educate the public on eProcessing and to accept feedback on implementation problems; and
- Systems maintenance must have sufficient resources to repair and upgrade the technology, and technical expertise must be maintained among personnel.
Delays in EAD Processing
As of Dec. 31, 2018, 46.3% of all EAD applications exceeded the 90-day processing goal. EAD delays account for the single largest category of casework for the Ombudsman’s office. The report finds that three main factors have contributed to the growing EAD processing times in recent years: increased filing volume, technology challenges and insufficient staffing. The report also noted other problems with EAD processing, including cards containing informational errors and mailing issues. In order to address these problems, the report makes the following recommendations to USCIS:
- Increase USCIS’s staffing resources to devote more production hours to EAD processing;
- Accelerate the incorporation of Form I-765 into eProcessing;
- Implement a public education campaign to encourage applicants to file EAD renewals up to 180 days before expiration;
- Conduct public education to encourage applicants to verify their address format using U.S. Postal Service’s “Look Up a Zip Code™” tool; and
- Consider establishing a process to identify and expedite the processing of EAD resubmissions filed due to service error and use express mail courier service to speed delivery in such situations.
The Ombudsman report provides the following selected updates on USCIS positions on topic areas where the Ombudsman previously made recommendations or engaged with USCIS.
2018: Advance parole processing. The Ombudsman received reports that USCIS was denying applications to renew advance parole where the applicant traveled and returned using the previous advance parole document that was still valid while the renewal was pending, citing abandonment of the renewal. Although the Ombudsman found that the denials were consistent with the law, it noted that USCIS had not previously interpreted the law in that way and that this new interpretation resulted in inconveniences for applicants and inefficiencies for the agency. Update: The Ombudsman’s office met with USCIS several times resulting in a November 2018 USCIS policy change that reinstated the previous interpretation that a pending advance parole renewal will not be considered abandoned due to travel if the previous parole document is valid for the entire time the applicant is abroad.
2016: Central American Minors, or CAM, Refugee program. The Ombudsman made several recommendations on the CAM program to improve interviews, access to counsel and information availability. Updates: The CAM program was terminated in August 2017. As part of the termination, USCIS rescinded the approved conditional paroles of any applicants who had not entered the U.S. at the time the program was terminated. A class action lawsuit was filed to challenge the termination, and in December 2018, the judge found that the rescission of conditional paroles granted prior to termination was unlawful. The administration agreed to process the approximately 2,700 applicants who had been conditionally approved to enter the United States before the CAM program was terminated and indicated that it would begin to notify the applicants in June 2019.
2016: Parole for U visa principals and derivatives residing abroad. The Ombudsman recommended that USCIS should afford parole to eligible U visa petitioners on the waiting list and derivative family members residing abroad to facilitate entry into the United States while waiting for a visa to become available. Update: Although USCIS initially concurred with the recommendation, it revised its policies on parole pursuant to EO 13767 and no longer plans to offer parole for U visa principals and derivatives abroad. Parole continues to be available on a case-by-case basis.
2015: Special Immigrant Juvenile, or SIJ, adjudications. The Ombudsman made several recommendations to improve SIJ processing regarding USCIS adjudicator specialization, interview waivers and deference to state court findings. It also recommended issuing final SIJ regulations that fully incorporate all statutory amendments. Update: There are no SIJ program regulations in the Department of Homeland Security Unified Regulatory Agenda.
2014: Notices to Appear, or NTAs. The Ombudsman recommended that USCIS provide additional guidance for NTA issuance, require USCIS attorneys to review NTAs prior to issuance and create a working group with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Executive Office for Immigration Review to improve tracking, information sharing and coordination of NTA issuance. Update: USCIS issued new guidance on when USCIS may issue an NTA on June 28, 2018. This policy has been rolled out for denials of status-impacting applications in many classifications including humanitarian forms of relief, but not yet for employment-based petitions.