26 Jul 2023 My Conversation with USCIS Officials
Recently, I attended the annual conference of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Orlando, Florida. Thousands of immigration attorneys attend this conference, to keep updated on the latest developments in immigration laws and policies. It is part of our continuing education.
The exhibit hall has many vendors, offering products and services, such as books, software programs, and other items immigration attorneys may find helpful in their law practice. Surprisingly, one of the booths was the USCIS, giving immigration attorneys the opportunity to have an informal conversation with the officers. Of course, I could not pass up such an opportunity, as I hoped my comments or viewpoints would be shared with other officials back in Washington, DC.
One of the first things I pointed out was that when the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was disbanded, and three separate new agencies were created (US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)), Congress intended that CBP and ICE were supposed to handle enforcement, and USCIS was supposed to handle benefits. I even pointed out that there was an old memorandum from 1980 from the Commissioner of Legacy INS, instructing officers that their role was to “find ways to approve” cases, and deny them only if they must. Unfortunately, it seemed that in many cases, some officers were taking the opposite approach: looking for ways to deny a case and approving only if they had no other choice. But USCIS’s role should be to approve cases, so long as an applicant can demonstrate eligibility.
The officers agreed with me that USCIS is supposed to handle benefits, not enforcement. However, there are some adjudicators who view their role as guardians or gatekeepers of the borders and nation and therefore could be very strict and rigid in their approach.
I noted that perhaps they might not fully understand the profound effect they have on people’s lives and futures, as a denial could result in a person’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations for a better life in the U.S. coming to a crashing halt. But it was encouraging that these officers understood the role USCIS is supposed to have.
We also discussed the horrendous backlogs and delays in processing petitions and other applications for immigration benefits. Sometimes it can take years for USCIS to adjudicate a petition or application, whereas in the past, it might have taken only a few weeks or months. The officers explained that the problem is staffing and funding. Since the pandemic, there has been a staffing shortage. In addition, USCIS (which is self-funded, meaning it must raise money for its operations from filing fees versus Congress allocating funds, as is the case for other agencies) does not have enough money to hire and train enough staff. With fewer people and less funding, backlogs grow.
I would like to thank USCIS for having a booth at the AILA conference and for engaging with immigration attorneys concerning our observations, comments, and complaints. It shows USCIS is willing to listen, hopefully take our comments and suggestions to heart, and perhaps bring about positive change.
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