Cit­i­zen ap­pli­ca­tion back­log mul­ti­plies

Ques­tions raised about mass amnesty

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN DINAN

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.

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