In June of this year, the USCIS Ombudsman released its annual report, where it "details the urgent systemic issues affecting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services... and identifies potential solutions to resolve these problems." This year, the agency's various backlogs loom large in the 120-page report. Making progress on those backlogs has been difficult for various reasons, including the state of the world: "Global upheaval, political confrontations, and climate issues created populations in need of temporary protection, and the United States took on its share of assistance to these populations." While the Ombudsman applauds the Biden Administration's efforts to help those in need, it notes that other asylum seekers and immigrants have been harmed by diverting resources that might otherwise have been available to complete their cases.

To be honest, I have avoided reading the report until now because it is simply too depressing. We know the basic problem: Too many people and not enough resources. We also know that Congress--which controls the nation's purse strings--is not likely to approve any additional funding, especially while the House of Representatives remains in Republican hands.

As I reviewed the report, I found myself feeling some sympathy for USCIS, which is being asked to do too much with too little. But the key word in that last sentence is "some," as I also feel that--at least with regards to affirmative asylum cases--the agency has utterly failed to take bold and creative steps to alleviate the ever-increasing backlog.

Here, we'll discuss the Ombudsman's findings and try to explicate what is happening at one of the U.S. government's most troubled agencies.

The first thing to know is that USCIS is still digging itself out of the hole created by the pandemic and the Trump Administration. In addition, throughout Fiscal Year 2022, "the agency was beset by complications it could not have foreseen." These include responses to multiple humanitarian disasters, including in Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as parole programs for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (CHNV programs). "As of March 2023, approximately 75,000 Afghans... and approximately 116,000 Ukrainians... have received parole to enter the United States." "So far, the CHNV programs have allowed 75,637 individuals to be paroled into the United States; at 30,000 per month, this total population is as yet unknown." These new arrivals lead to "downstream challenges," as many will apply for additional services, such as work permits and asylum.

Indeed, "USCIS continues to receive historic levels of asylum receipts in FY 2023, particularly from nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela." "In FY 2023 through March 9 [the first five months of the fiscal year], USCIS has received 164,000 asylum applications, of which 62 percent (i.e., 101,900 applications) were filed by nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela." "However, at this early point in the CHNV parole process, it is unlikely that most of these asylum applicants were paroled into the United States under the CHNV parole processes, but rather entered the country through other means." In other words, we have yet to see the impact of these new CHNV parolees (at 30,000 per month) on the asylum system.

"In addition, in FY 2023 through March 9, USCIS has received fewer than 700 asylum applications filed by Ukrainian nationals.... It is probable that USCIS will start to receive more asylum applications filed by Ukrainian nationals as more time passes since the beginning of U4U [the Uniting for Ukraine program]."

Aside from dealing with large numbers of new filings from paroled asylum applicants, many Asylum Offices (AOs) have been deployed to the Southern border, which has "continued to impact the affirmative asylum caseload and the agency’s ability to chip away at it." Not only must AOs make credible fear determinations (initial evaluations of asylum eligibility), but under a new program, AOs--rather than Immigration Judges--are beginning to adjudicate asylum cases, further limiting their ability to process affirmative asylum cases.

All this has resulted in increasing backlogs and increasing delays for affirmative asylum applicants. "While USCIS has not provided any estimates on backlog reduction efforts related to Form I-589 [asylum cases], for affirmative asylum, processing times are likely now approaching a decade as backlogs in that humanitarian program now stand at 842,000 and are projected to reach historical records of over 1 million by the end of calendar year 2024."

While the Ombudsman's evaluation sounds dire, in reality, I think it is overly optimistic. There are already many asylum applicants who have been waiting 8+ years for an interview, and there is no reason to believe they will be interviewed any time soon. On top of that, decisions these days often takes months or even years, and so receiving an interview is no guarantee of a quick decision. Also, since November 2022 (the last time I saw data), the backlog has been growing at more than 20,000 cases per month, meaning that we should expect to hit the 1-million mark by about February 2024 (not the end of 2024). Finally, these numbers refer to cases and not people. Since some cases have more than one person (spouse and children), the backlog is already well over 1 million people.

The report acknowledges the agency's "many challenges," but ends on an optimistic note: "With help from Congress for badly needed resources; from stakeholders who provide insightful feedback; and from its partners, such as [the Ombudsman's] office, who constructively collaborate to ensure the agency completes its mission fairly and on time, the agency can proceed on course to master its daunting tasks." Such optimism is sorely needed, and perhaps the power of positive thinking can help steer USCIS towards a better future. While I personally have my doubts, I am certainly rooting for USCIS to succeed--for the sake of immigrants and asylum seekers, and for the good of our country.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: