In an announcement earlier this month, USCIS claims to have "reduced overall backlogs by 15%." This sounds like good news, and it would be--if it were actually true.

The reality, as discussed in the same announcement, is that "USCIS received 10.9 million filings and completed more than 10 million pending cases" in FY 2023 (October 1, 2022 to September 30, 2023). While completing 10 million cases is no small accomplishment, by my math, if the Agency received 10.9 million cases and completed 10 million cases, their backlog has actually increased by 900,000 cases.

So why does USCIS claim that the backlog has been reduced by 15%? The answer hinges on the definition of the term "backlog."

To most of us, the backlog is the total number of pending cases. But USCIS defines its backlog as "cases pending outside of target processing times." In other words, only cases that are pending longer than the posted processing time are considered part of the backlog. Of course, processing times are created by USCIS, and so using this method, they could simply change all processing times to ∞, and the backlog would be eliminated. Voila!

While I think the claim to have reduced backlogs by 15% is a little disingenuous, USCIS is making progress. First, as I've said, completing 10 million cases is nothing to sneeze at. Indeed, that's more cases than USCIS has ever completed in a single fiscal year. In addition, the Agency has supposedly reduced average wait times for a number of forms. For example, in FY 2022, the average wait time for an I-765 (application for work permit) was 6.8 months; in FY 2023, the wait time was 4.6 months. In FY 2022, the average wait time for an application for a Green Card, form I-485, was 15.7 months; in FY 2023, it was 13.5 months. For the citizenship form, N-400, the average wait time dropped from 7.5 months to 5.7 months from FY 2022 to FY 2023. Most impressively--and perhaps most suspiciously--between FY 2022 and FY 2023, USCIS says that the average wait time for the I-730, petition for asylee relative, dropped from 24.9 months to 7.3 months.

You might note a tinge of skepticism in the previous paragraph. That's because in my office, we are not seeing forms move as quickly as USCIS has indicated. Also, if you check USCIS processing times, you will see that form I-730 is listed as taking 29 months! Not 7.3 months (or even 24.9 months) as claimed in USCIS's announcement. Other forms are more difficult to check, since they have multiple processing times, depending on the basis for the application and the applicant's location. However, another example is the I-485. For people filing based on approved asylum, the listed processing time is 32 months, which is quite a bit longer than the 13.5 months claimed by USCIS for all I-485 forms (the announcement did not specifically list wait times for asylee adjustments).

In terms of the affirmative asylum backlog, USCIS is largely silent. We do learn that the Agency completed 52,000 asylum cases in FY 2023, but we do not learn the total number of asylum cases pending. From other sources, we know that at the end of FY 2023 (September 30, 2023), there were about 1 million cases in the backlog (and keep in mind that some cases have multiple people--a spouse and children). If USCIS processes 52,000 cases per year, it will take more than 19 years to complete all the backlog cases--assuming that no new cases enter the system.

Also, while finishing 52,000 cases is an important accomplishment, that figure represents only a fraction of the cases received during the year. At the beginning FY 2023, the backlog stood at about 543,000, meaning that it grew by 457,000 cases over the course of the year. In other words, for every asylum case that was completed in FY 2023, nearly nine new cases were filed.

There are many reasons why USCIS has been unable to reduce the affirmative asylum backlog. One big issue is the border, where Asylum Officers are responsible for credible fear interviews (initial evaluations of asylum eligibility). In FY 2023, Asylum Officers completed a record-setting 146,000 CFIs. If these officers are prioritizing CFIs, they have less time for affirmative asylum cases.

USCIS is responsible for numerous other humanitarian applications as well, though such cases do not necessarily impact the Agency's capacity to work on affirmative asylum applications. These cases include TPS (Temporary Protected Status) for various countries, refugee interviews (100,000+ interviews in FY 2023), and the "lawful pathways" program, which brought almost 238,000 nationals from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to the United States in FY 2023.

In terms of the current fiscal year, USCIS "will continue to increase refugee interviews and decisions to support the target of admitting 125,000 refugees," it will "continue to build capacity for processing credible fear screenings at the southwest border," USCIS will improve the EAD process, and it "will continue to build up the infrastructure and onboard and train new staff " at the new HART Service Center, which is focused on various humanitarian application (though not on affirmative asylum cases).

Absent from the priorities listed in the USCIS announcement is much about the affirmative asylum system. I see only one sentence directly related to the Agency's plans for the Asylum Office in FY 2024: "USCIS will focus on technological and procedural improvements to streamline the adjudication of asylum applications." I am not sure what this means, but certainly, I would like to see some procedural improvements, including sufficient notice before asylum interviews are scheduled and a return to the "first-in, first-out" (FIFO) scheduling system. Not listed in the report, but also important, is the Agency's effort to hire more Asylum Officers. This effort is ongoing, and presumably will continue during the current fiscal year.

USCIS has long struggled with too much responsibility and too few resources. So it's understandable that leadership wants to tout the Agency's achievements. But in my opinion, the current announcement focuses too much on accomplishments and not enough on challenges; all at the expense of accuracy. To make real progress, we need a more unvarnished view of where things stand today, so we can decide how best to move forward.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: