USCIS does a good job with most of what it does. Most of what it does is routine. It does it in a almost comically inefficient way, but it does it better than it has in a long time. Why comically inefficient? Take the case of an adjustment of status for a married couple, which is applying for permanent residence in the United States based on marriage. To accomplish this and the associated benefits, when I help a couple accomplish this, I have to file nine separate forms mostly with the same information over and over again. I have to pay two separate fees. We also need to send photographs that are never used. It all gets mailed to an office in Chicago. From there the packet is processed a little and then sent to a town outside of Kansas City, Missouri. After this initial processing, I and my clients each receive four envelopes in the mail each with a receipt for each of four different petitions and applications that comprise the packet. In Missouri it is processed some more. My client and I get another letter, this time for a fingerprinting appointment. Sometimes we get two or three fingerprint appointments, one for each of the three applications that require fingerprinting. The client then goes to a fingerprinting site either in Chula Vista or San Marco. The case is then scheduled in Missouri for an interview in San Diego for which I and the clients get another letter. Before the interview, the client and I receive two more letters informing us that two interim benefits have been approved – for an employment authorization card and a travel document – a traveled document because when you apply for permanent residence you are not allowed to leave the country without permission except in some rare cases. Then the client receives an employment authorization card and a travel document in the mail. They are now one document. There used to be two separate ones.
Then the file is sent back to San Diego for an interview. If all goes well, as is the case in most of the cases, an office in Kentucky makes a permanent residence card which is sent to the client. The client and I also receive three more letters – one indicating the approval of the petition, one indicating approval of the application and then another letter welcoming the alien to the United States but not providing any useful information about what it means to be a permanent resident – what the new rights and responsibilities are. A letter like that never comes.
This process is funded by filing fees. All the Tom Joad-like travel of the papers around the country and all the separate mail costs $1490. The process happens relatively fast – less than six months from the initial mailing to Chicago to the sending of the permanent residence card and final welcome letter. Some in the immigration business for a while or who have had business with USCIS and its predecessor, INS, may recall that adjustment of status applications used to take more than three years to complete, so obviously there has been improvement.
One reason for the improvement is the centralization. Most of what happens does not happen in the local districts. By taking away local responsibility, there are fewer local screw ups. What problems still exist, mainly occur at the local level – which is not to imply that there are still not serious errors made in Chicago and Missouri which are hard to solve because of access to officials to solve problems. Local officers still make many adjudicatory decisions and botch a fair number. They create decisional bright lines that do not exist in the law. For example, the San Diego local office will not approve a naturalization application for an alien who has any criminal convictions within five years from the date of his application notwithstanding that the statutes and regulations that control naturalization call for no such thing. I have blogged before about recent cases where naturalization were wrongly denied because officers misapprehended the law or did not read the material sent to them at their own request.
Local offices still are responsible for certain types of cases and in these locally-managed cases mistakes and delays are not unususual. One such responsibility is handling requests to reopen or re-consider cases already decided by USCIS. The biggest problem is not that mistakes happen – mistakes happen everywhere all the time – it is that there is no accountability in the problem-solving process. When a customer goes to the local USCIS office to seek assistance with a problem, the fact that he goes is recorded to show that volume of work of the officers who deal with these questions, but the nature of the question and the response to it are not recorded anywhere – not in the case file and not in computer systems monitoring the file. Thus, if you have a problem with your case and speak to an officer, there is no way to know later that you went, what the problem was, what the officer advised, and it was ever resolved. It would be like if a big plumbing company dispatcher took job orders for plumbing repairs but no one knew what happened to the job order. Did anyone go to the customer’s site? Was a diagnosis made? Was a repair made? Is the customer happy?
Here’s an example. A colleague in the midwest asked me to ask locally about a case for reopening based on a change in the law. He filed the motion to reopen twice in San Diego. The last time in February 2010. To be clear, if a woman got pregnant the day the motion was filed in San Diego, at this point she would have a teething baby and no resolution of her case. Because San Diego has arranged it that the only way to inquire is to go personally (Imagine if you had a problem with your computer you had to fly to Bangalore to get help?) and because the attorney found the national call-in number was ineffective for the locally-filed case, he asked me to inquire for him. San Diego used to have a rather marvelous system where a local highly trained and highly committed trouble shooter resolved problem cases, but that was disbanded in favor of going personally to see an information officer through the Infopass system. The reason for the change had to do with the office being able to quantify the number of inquiries it dealt with (remember, regardless of how the inquiry was dealt with) rather than because it was felt to be an efficient way to resolve problem cases.
Here are the results of my various inquiries starting with my very first one to the most recent. The genders of the officers are omitted to protect the innocent:
December 16, 2010 – I spoke with the officer considered to be the most conscientious – most unlikely to ignore the inquiry after the customer walks away. This officer said the case consisted of three files – one for the principal applicant and one each of the applicants two children. The principal applicants file was at the California Service Center and the children’s file was in the office of the District Director (the main guy) in San Diego. The officer said he would request the file from the California Service Center and get back to me. He never did.
January 13, 2011 – I spoke with a different officer. He said the file of the principal applicant was still at the California Service Center. He said a local officer who works in the District Directors office was responsible for the case and he would forward my inquiry to this officers.
February 15, 2011 – I had the opportunity during my Infopass inquiry to speak with the officer who works in the District Director’s office was responsible for the case. This Office said the principal applicant’s file was still at the California Service Center.
March14, 2011 – I spoke with a new officer. He said the principle alien’s case was still at the California Service Center. He would request the file and then work would begin on the case.
March 31, 2011 – It was sort of early for a follow up, but I was there for other business and so asked. I am glad I did not trust, but rather verified. This time I learned that the principal alien’s file was still at the California Service Center and the files of the two children were no longer with the officer who works in the District Director’s Office, but had been sent to the National Record Center – a storage facility in Missouri where completed case files are sent and the Ark of the Covenant is probably located. The officer indicated he would seek expedited delivery of the files back to San Diego and would personally make sure that progress was made on the case. I actually trust this officer and my hopes are high.
From December 16, 2010, I went from news from a conscientious officer that the file is on the desk of a person who works in the District Director’s office who has personal responsibility for the case and is actively assembling all the components of the case for a prompt resolution to March 31, 2011,and word that the files are more widely dispersed around the United States with no one locally with a clue or concern about the case at all.
Until USCIS comes up with a system to monitor Infopass inquiries and their resolutions and judging employees by what they do and say during inquiries, USCIS may get better at routine things, but as soon as a case becomes somewhat unusual and local officials are responsible for it, it will remain in limbo potentially forever. As long as there is no accountability, there will be no service. The saddest part is that this is not about paper, but about real people who are suffering from this ineptitude. Posted April 3, 2011.