Politicians who believe our immigration system is too porous routinely say that those seeking to come to the United States should just “wait in line.” That phrase, of course, presupposes an orderly and fair legal immigration process. Given changes introduced by the new masters of that process, the phrase “line up for the gauntlet” might be more appropriate.
Many of these changes have transpired within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency tasked by Congress with administering immigration benefits. I served as the agency’s director from 2014 to 2017. In February 2018, USCIS updated its mission statement, eliminating the reference to those seeking immigration benefits – individuals and employers who often pay sizable fees for benefits adjudication – as “customers,” while airbrushing away USCIS’s aim to “realize the United States’ promise as a nation of immigrants.” The newer, colder statement of purpose parallels the agency’s evolution from the service-oriented mission that earlier leaders of both parties had championed toward the restrictionist aims of many in the Trump administration.
While this shift has unfolded, the agency’s adjudications have become so backed up that the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing earlier this month to explore the causes and harmful consequences of its severe case processing delays. As a former director, I know full well that those delays are not solely the result of the current administration’s policies; they stem from a variety of factors, many inherent in the agency’s processes and budget development model. Still, USCIS case processing times have climbed sharply under President Trump, even as the volume of new applications has declined and the agency’s budget has risen. In her testimony, Marketa Lindt, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, observed that the average USCIS case processing time increased 46 percent from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2018.
During that span, the Trump administration has implemented a range of unwarranted policies and practices that directly lengthen processing times. Because of one of these policies, every employer-sponsored green card applicant must now appear for an in-person interview, even though there’s no practical justification for such interviews except in a small group of cases that appear to have higher potential to undermine public safety or the integrity of the immigration system. These across-the-board interviews drain limited resources and prolong the waits for people seeking employment in the United States, as well as those trying to reunite with their families or achieve full civic integration by becoming citizens. Similarly, the percentage of cases for which USCIS requests supplemental evidence – evidence that is often duplicative or irrelevant – has skyrocketed. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, USCIS issued “Requests for Evidence” for 60 percent of all H-1B petitions, a rate nearly three times as high as in fiscal 2016.
Even as processing times for immigration benefits have surged, the agency has increasingly redirected its resources away from fulfilling its statutory mission as a benefits agency. Importantly, USCIS’s own website not only acknowledges that mission, but also distinguishes it from the missions of the two other Department of Homeland Security immigration agencies (Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection), stating: “We were formed to enhance the security and improve the efficiency of national immigration services by exclusively focusing on the administration of benefit applications. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), components within DHS, handle immigration enforcement and border security functions.”
But the administration seems to hold the view that USCIS should, instead, take on the enforcement work of ICE and CBP. The day after the hearing about the delays – during which USCIS attributed a large part of the backlog to a lack of resources and personnel – reports revealed an email sent by the agency’s headquarters to its staff members asking that they volunteer to perform administrative duties at ICE field offices nationwide. Earlier this month, the new USCIS director – perhaps at the behest and certainly with the blessing of the White House – could be seen all over mass media promising ICE raids against people with final deportation orders, although such actions are nowhere within the jurisdiction of the agency he runs. And the Trump administration’s proposed 2020 budget seeks to transfer more than $200 million in applicant fees out of USCIS into ICE to pay for, among other things, hundreds of ICE enforcement officer positions, even though USCIS officials asserted under oath that budget and fiscal constraints do not allow USCIS to hire the volume of personnel needed to process its caseload.
I am no ICE abolitionist. Smart enforcement of immigration laws protects the safety and security of the nation. But by congressional design, USCIS is not ICE, nor is it subordinate to it. That separation of functions is precisely what positions USCIS to act as the service-oriented gateway through which vital international talent and enterprise reach the United States, through which U.S. citizens reunite with loved ones from abroad – through which we can advance our national security interests by administering humanitarian programs that distinguish the United States as a beacon of freedom.
A USCIS true to its statutory mission is vital to our safety, economy, and the well-being of our families and communities. When USCIS no longer recognizes itself as the benefits agency Congress intended; when the line between USCIS and ICE substantially blurs; when USCIS’s policies act to stymie our legal immigration system rather than facilitate it, all of us suffer.
If our officials have forgotten this, the nation needs them to remember, and fast. The legal immigration system is at stake. And so is the future of our country.