Citizen application backlog multiplies
Questions raised about mass amnesty
First it was the Obama administration, and now Trump administration officials are struggling with a massive influx of people applying for citizenship, overwhelming the agency that approves the applications and sending wait times soaring.
The backlog of applications more than doubled during the 18 months surrounding the election, topping 780,000 people who are now stuck in a process that takes an average of nine months — more than twice the four-month target.
For U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency that could soon be tasked with legalizing hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, it’s a severe black eye that raises questions about the government’s ability to handle a new mass amnesty amid all the other work.
“USCIS has bungled everything from the implementation of online applications to vetting DACA applicants. There is every reason to believe that it lacks the personnel and infrastructure to properly administer any future amnesties,” said Matthew J. O’Brien, a former employee of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles all legal immigration applications. “In fact, it is almost 100 percent certain USCIS would bungle
any of the amnesty plans currently being considered by Congress.”
The agency can’t say when it will be able to eliminate the backlog, which began in early 2016 with about 390,000 applications in the pipeline. By the election last year, the number was more than 635,000 and, as of June 30 — the most recent data — it had reached 781,126.
USCIS said it’s struggling with the problem. “The backlog has continued to grow, however, the agency is actively managing workloads, shifting workloads to increase capacity for backlog reduction and streamlining processes in an effort to slow the growth of and eventually reduce the backlog,” said USCIS spokesman R. Carter Langston.
Part of the difficulty is the agency’s electronic applications system, dubbed ELIS, which has had multiple failures.
It’s so bad the agency had to cancel naturalization interviews and even halt naturalization ceremonies for fear of doling out citizenship to people who were wrongly approved.
“USCIS field offices struggled with faulty background check results, widespread printing problems and other challenges in using the system to process naturalization cases,” a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general said.
The inspector general has conducted one audit of the ELIS system and has another in the works, with plans to issue a report and recommendations by the end of the year.
For now, ELIS has been taken offline and the agency has gone back to its legacy processing system.
USCIS says it has finished extensive testing but doesn’t know when it will be able to resume use of ELIS.
Making the agency’s struggles even tougher is interest in citizenship, which usually drops after a presidential election.
Instead, with President Trump in the White House, interest has remained extraordinarily high. Some 540,000 applications were filed in the first six months of this year, compared with 420,000 during the same period in 2013.
Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has been active in promoting immigration reform and naturalization among eligible immigrants, said interest is still high in Chicago.
“We think fear of deportation is a primary motivator for longtime legal permanent residents to seek citizenship, but voting is another reason we hear regularly,” he said.
Mr. Rivlin said the citizenship backlog is just one of several areas where the federal government under Mr. Trump is running poorly. He said it’s not clear whether it’s by design or a leadership or staffing failure.
“The level of customer service seems to be declining from all federal agencies, at least from where we are sitting,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien, who is now research director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the backlog also could be a result of stiffer scrutiny of applications by the Trump administration, which he said would be a plus. Under President Obama, he said, the agency would just approve borderline applications.
USCIS is a fee-based agency, meaning its costs are generally covered by what it charges applicants for various benefits, such as green cards, temporary visas or naturalization.
Now the agency is rushing to process a flood of applications under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the deportation amnesty for so-called Dreamers.
Under Mr. Trump’s six-month phaseout, those whose DACA permits expire before March 5 were given a month to renew. As of Wednesday, USCIS had received some 132,000 applications in that month.
Mr. O’Brien said the agency’s repeated struggles with applications should be a warning for members of Congress who are looking to create a full legalization program for those DACA recipients, who altogether number nearly 700,000.
“The never-ending stream of backlogs at USCIS indicates that the agency’s senior leadership is severely deficient in the kind of organizational management skills that are essential for success in the private sector,” he said.
Homeland Security says the agency will be ready for legalization, saying its overall caseload reaches more than 6 million applications a year, and it can handle an influx.
“The agency’s employees are agile and adaptive, so workflows will be adjusted when necessary to accommodate changes in processing immigration benefits,” the department said.
Mr. O’Brien, however, said that’s not true. “USCIS has never had a workforce big enough to handle the 6 million applications it receives each year. As a result, it’s always playing whack-a-mole,” he said.
A former employee of USCIS said the agency has “never had a workforce big enough” to handle the 6 million immigration applications it fields annually.