USCIS modernizing itself into a disaster bureau.

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019
By: Jonathan MontagJ.D.

With all the present attention to the wall and asylum seekers at the border and caged babies and deaths while in U.S. immigration custody, our attention is concentrated on Customs and Border Protection (I am not one for zero tolerance, but any journalist who calls it Customs and Border Patrol should be fired, as here and here.) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Skirting intense scrutiny, the other bureau in the immigration triumvirate is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services which has over the last two years been devolving in terms of the quality of its provision of services.

Looking first at the national perspective, a report  from the American Immigration Association shows that:

• the overall average case processing time surged by 46 percent over the past two fiscal years and 91 percent since FY 2014.

• USCIS processed 94 percent of its form types—from green cards for family members to visas for human trafficking victims to petitions for immigrant workers—more slowly in FY 2018 than in FY 2014.

• Case processing times increased substantially in FY 2018 even as case receipt volume appeared to markedly decrease.

Like attorneys who receive large numbers of calls from clients wondering why their cases are taking so long (“Yes, I filed your case. You got the filing receipt in the mail, right? No, I did not take your filing fees and take a vacation to Acapulco.”), USCIS likely is also receiving large numbers of calls about case delays. What to do? Make it harder to contact USCIS.

USCIS used to publish data on the processing time of a case. They worked hard to get processing times uniform throughout the country and published the average processing time. They also admirably proclaimed processing goals of less than six months. One could call the USCIS National Customer Service Center and ask about a case once it was outside normal processing times. In a change, a bit of modernization, USCIS now publishes processing times in a range of time. For instance, instead of saying that a permanent residence application (Form I-485) based on a family relationship is taking, say, eight months, they post that it can take from 7.5 to 18.5 months.  Obviously, 18.5 months is an outlier date, but they now require that you not contact them about a delay in processing until after 18.5 months (Just stop and ponder, one and a half years to get your green card application decided! Imagine if it took that long to get your driver license or a tax refund or a health insurance claim processed?). Just to preempt any “Get something for nothing” argument, the fee for a green card payable to USCIS is between $1,225 and $1,760 depending on how you count it. For money like that one might expect speedier service.

One could also make an appointment and go to a USCIS office and ask about your case there. USCIS has always been stingy with appointments. To get one, you have to go online at midnight when new dates, two weeks in advance, are released. If you tarry much beyond midnight, forget it. It’s like getting a tee time on a municipal golf course or buying a ticket to Comic-Con – except you’ve already paid $1,760 for these “immigration services.” Even that service, stingy in availability and onerous to obtain, is being phased out in favor of calling the USCIS National Customer Service Center.  The phase-out, in 1984 Doublespeak, a “modernization program.”

Let’s now step away from the national policy level to the impact locally. My last three calls over the last couple of weeks to the USCIS National Customer Service Center have been disasters. One one call, after waiting on hold and being transferred for 29 minutes, just when I reached the person who was supposed to help, the line went dead. Notwithstanding caller-ID techinology (the phone system acknowledges they know your number), no one called back. The only way to get help was to call back and start the whole ordeal all over again.

The second call was to find out about receiving a receipt in the mail for a case. The service provider asks a few questions about the case and the attorney calling – names, birth dates, case numbers, addresses, etc., to make sure you are not an imposter. In this case, there was a data entry error by USCIS when the case was received and I could get no information despite a long wait. The issue was an error in the client’s address. By coincidence, I changed the client’s address online and told the service provider I had that action’s number (actions get numbers, actually numbers and letters) and she could verify the address. Nope. Not happening. Can’t help you. Suggestion: Change the address again online and wait 30 more days which is how long it takes for an online address change to be reflected in the system, and then call again, or make an appointment at the local office.

The third call – “best” of all. This call was about a delay in issuance of a work permit outside of the normal processing time range of 4-6 months (these days, the blink of an eye). After 45 minutes on hold, a service provider – brand new on the job and fumbling over the myriad of screens she had to navigate (“Pardon the delay. Information is all over the place.”) she forwarded the case to an officer. An automated system told me I would get a call in an hour. Experience taught me if I missed the call I would not get a second one. An hour later, I got the call. I explained that I made an inquiry through their online system, e-request, and an instant reply indicated that I would get an actual answer in 21 days. If I did not, I should call the USCIS National Customer Service Center. It was 22 days later so I called. The officer did some typing and told me that he could not follow up on the case until 30 days from when I did the e-request. I pointed out that the “system” told me I needed to wait 21 days, and now you say 30. I also pointed out that I would have to begin at the beginning – 45 minutes on hold and another hour to stand by for a return call. He felt my pain but his hands were tied.

Finally, let’s look at the local USCIS office. What happens occasionally at a USCIS interview is that the interviewing officer may ask for some evidence – some document or another. They give you 87 days to get it. I assume 87 days has some numerological significance – the first letters in Drop Dead Sucker in Sumerian perhaps. In the past two months, I got two of these requests. Each time I gathered the documentation from the client and either hand-delivered it to the local USCIS office or mailed it with tracking capability to the USCIS office. Both times, USCIS did not properly add the document to the client’s file and considered the case abandoned. Both times, I contacted USCIS and gave them proof that they received the document. I am still waiting for responses and decisions. In my humble practice, I saw a recent 100 percent failure rate in putting requested evidence in the file. And how to follow up? Until it goes away, waking up at midnight hoping to make an appointment two weeks out and then going to the local USCIS office and asking for an update.

If I were in charge at USCIS I would be concerned as to why responses to requests for evidence are not making it into customer files. One might suspect USCIS would reach out to the local association of immigration lawyers to see if there is a systemic crisis and use case information provided by attorneys to isolate the problems. Is this going to happen? Likely not as USCIS is also phasing out liaison activities with local immigration lawyer groups. Another modernization program, no doubt. I’m not sure how much more modernization the system can take. Posted March 3, 2019.


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