Last time, I wrote about the Ombudsman's 2023 report and the state of USCIS. Today, we'll look at what the report says about how USCIS is responding to its many challenges.

In its report, the Ombudsman notes that USICS is employing a number of strategies to address its current woes. These include "technology solutions (including expanding online filing), processing innovations, and traditional efforts such as increased hiring and training."

The agency has also made deliberate decisions to prioritize some types of cases over others. "Those adjudications that appear to have been given the highest priority included employment-based immigrant visa adjustments and naturalization applications." "These decisions, however necessary, came at a price." "USCIS is a fee-based agency with finite resources." "The determinations to prioritize certain applications and petitions meant that other workloads could not be addressed as robustly as the priority programs." "Many of those case types that were deemed lesser priorities continued to be worked at a slower pace, with fewer adjudications being completed... increasing backlogs in those areas."

The "de-prioritized" cases include Green Card applications for asylees, under the logic that "Refugee or asylee adjustment applicants can maintain employment authorization by virtue of their status," and so there is less urgency for them to obtain permanent residency. I suppose that is true, but given that this population has already been subject to a thorough interview and background check, I wonder why Green Cards can't simply be issued with only a minimal review (to check that the applicant has not committed a crime and meets the physical presence requirements).

In terms of USCIS's asylum caseload, there is little good news. In last year's budget, "USCIS was given funding by Congress to hire new asylum officers for both the new processes [at the border and the various humanitarian parole programs] and to assist in driving down the backlog." "This was especially welcome funding, as asylum officers continue to experience a relatively high rate of attrition."

Even with the additional funding, the Asylum Office made little progress on its affirmative asylum case load. Between October 1, 2022 (the beginning of FY 2023) and March 9, 2023, "USCIS has completed approximately 16,200 asylum cases." During this same period, the agency received 164,000 new asylum applications. By my math, this means that the Asylum Office is completing one case for every 10 new cases it receives, which is hardly a recipe for reducing the backlog.

The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. USCIS expects "a significant increase in asylum applications from individuals with expiring humanitarian parole." "If USCIS ends up needing to prioritize asylum applications from humanitarian parole populations... the Asylum Division would have to shift resources to address these priority filings," and the agency simply does not have the capacity to take on this extra work and fulfill its other obligations, including interviewing affirmative asylum applicants. Also, as temporary additional funding from Congress comes to an end, the agency will have to pay for "its humanitarian workloads almost entirely [through] its fee-paying customers." We've been hearing rumors about increased filing fees (especially for employment-based applications), and that seems likely, as USCIS has no other way to fund its humanitarian programs.

Whether increased user fees will be enough to meet the agency's needs, I do not know. The Ombudsman notes that implementing the various "humanitarian parole programs without additional funding puts a strain on the agency’s resources [and] USCIS has been open about how it cannot maintain adequate service levels with its current level of resources without lasting impacts on operations."

So what can USCIS do? The Ombudsman makes a few recommendations. One not-particularly-realistic idea is that "DHS, its supporters, and its stakeholders should continue to advocate for some form of appropriated funds [from Congress] to address USCIS workloads caused by humanitarian parole programs." If the world were a more rational place, Congress and the Administration would come to an agreement about who qualifies for asylum and how many people we should admit to our country, and then they would provide the appropriate resources. But we do not live in that world. Congress is polarized and Republicans seem to be gaining a political advantage from the current influx of migrants. So there is no incentive to reach an agreement and it seems impossible that any more money will be forthcoming for humanitarian migrants.

A more realistic suggestion from the Ombudsman is to take a group approach to asylum cases. The U.S. government already recognizes a humanitarian need to protect certain nationals--people from countries where we offer Temporary Protected Status or some type of humanitarian parole, for example. Perhaps, the Ombudsman suggests, "USCIS can consider the distinctive characteristics of these populations... and categorize each group to improve the asylum case preparation process." If the Biden Administration really wants to help migrants and reduce the asylum backlog (which currently stands at more than 842,000 cases), why not simply grant asylum to applicants from countries that we deem dangerous? Such applicants would, of course, be subject to a security background check and a brief interview. But there is no need for a full interview about asylum eligibility for people from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Cameroon, Haiti, and Venezuela (to name a few), where our government has already determined that protection is warranted. In addition, nationals from certain other countries--countries that are not currently designated for humanitarian protection--should not need full interviews for asylum: Eritrea, Uyghurs from China, and Iraq, for example.

With limited resources and no real hope of additional funding from Congress, the Biden Administration is going to have to make some difficult choices about its immigration priorities. But creative ideas are out there, and if the Administration is willing to be bold, progress on USCIS's backlogs is still possible.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: