USCIS recently issued its Fiscal Year 2022 report (covering the period from October 1, 2021 to September 30, 2022). The report discusses USCIS's efforts to dig itself out of the hole created by the pandemic and the prior Administration, and sets forth plans for the current fiscal year.

There were some positive developments during FY2022 and most of these relate to the immigration agency's efforts to reduce its various backlogs (though this report does not discuss the asylum backlog) and to address humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine. These developments were made possible with the help of Congress, which appropriated additional funds for USCIS's mission (USCIS normally receives more than 95% of its funding from customer fees). The agency notes that for FY2023, "Continued congressional support is critical to eliminate current net backlogs and achieve a robust humanitarian mission, while a new fee rule will help prevent the accumulation of additional backlogs in the future."

The agency reports that several backlogs have been reduced, most notably, the naturalization backlog, which was reduced by 62% in FY2022. More than 1 million people received U.S. citizenship. This all comports with what we are seeing on the ground--citizenship cases that previously took one year or more are now usually taking about four or five months.

Another positive change is the automatic 540-day EAD (Employment Authorization Document) extension. I wrote about this in May 2022 when it went into effect. As a result, work eligibility was restored for about 60,000 people whose EADs had expired under the old rule due to USCIS processing delays. The overall processing time for EADs is also going down, though EADs based on asylum pending still take well over a year. Of course, there is an easier solution here: Make the EAD valid for as long as the asylum application (or other USCIS application) is pending. While this would resolve the problem and free up USCIS resources for other tasks, it does not seem to be on USCIS's agenda.

The report also highlights some positive developments for employment-based immigrants, which may benefit some asylum seekers who are eligible to get a Green Card based on their job.

In terms of its humanitarian mission, USCIS has been assisting people from Afghanistan in a variety of ways: The agency has "completed over 92,000 EAD applications [for Afghans], almost 2,500 Adjustment of Status applications, over 2,700 asylum applications, over 15,000 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) petitions, and over 7,000 family-based immigrant petitions as of mid-November 2022." In addition, "USCIS interviewed over 6,250 refugee applicants from Afghanistan [refugee applications are adjudicated overseas and are distinct from asylum applications, which are processed in the U.S.], completing decisions for over 2,000 applications, and adjudicated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) requests filed beginning in May, when the country became eligible." This was a major effort and USCIS should be commended for its work, especially given the large numbers of people and the tight time frame. Of course, much of this would have been unnecessary if Congress had passed the bi-partisan Afghan Adjust Act, which would have (and may yet) provide status for Afghans evacuated to the U.S. after the Taliban seized control of their country.

USCIS has also been involved in the Uniting For Ukraine (U4U) program, which allows "supporters" in the U.S. to sponsor Ukrainians to come to our country: "USCIS has confirmed the financial suitability of over 177,000 supporters... and over 82,000 Ukrainians and their immediate family members have been paroled into the United States under the U4U process."

On the asylum front, the report has less to say. It notes that DHS and DOJ published a final rule, "which allows for the transfer of jurisdiction over some applications for asylum for individuals subject to expedited removal from EOIR [the Immigration Court] to USCIS [the Asylum Office], and swift review of those protection claims." While this might help the government remove asylum seekers more quickly at the Southern border and alleviate some of the burden on Immigration Judges, it will also increase the burden on Asylum Officers and likely cause the affirmative asylum backlog to grow even more quickly.

Looking to the future, for FY2023, which began on October 1, 2022, USCIS plans to simplify several forms, including the I-765 (EAD), I-485 (Green Card), and N-400 (citizenship). I've written about this issue before--many USCIS forms are poorly designed, confusing, inconsistent, culturally insensitive, and inefficient. Hopefully, the re-designed forms will make life easier for applicants and for USCIS.

USCIS has also begun accepting asylum applications (form I-589) online. The procedure is a bit awkward, but online filing will make the process more efficient and will allow applicants to receive an immediate receipt (a dramatic improvement given that some receipts take six months to arrive). Other services will be moving online as well, including case status updates for refugees and humanitarian parole applicants.

In another long-overdue move, USCIS plans to improve wait times for Advance Parole. Hopefully, this includes Advance Parole for asylum seekers, who are often stuck in the backlog for many years and who sometimes need to travel during this period. While they are at it, I hope USCIS will increase the validity period for the Refugee Travel Document, which is currently only good for one year. Also, why not simply issue the RTD whenever asylum is granted?

The agency also plans to improve efficiency and transparency for other types of humanitarian applications, such as VAWA, U visas, and T visas.

This is an ambitious agenda, and I wonder whether it will be undermined as anti-immigrant Republicans take over the House of Representatives next year. The good news is that user fees make up most of USCIS's budget, and so even if Congressional funding is cut off, the agency should still be able to continue moving towards its goals. Let's hope so, as there is much to be done.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: