USCIS Creates a New Service Center to Address Its Growing Humanitarian Docket

Bad border policy burdens legal immigration system

By Elizabeth Jacobs on May 3, 2023

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the opening of the Humanitarian, Adjustment, Removing Conditions, and Travel Documents (HART) Service Center, a brand new service center that will focus on humanitarian and other workload cases. The creation of this new division highlights the strain that the Department of Homeland Security’s current policies are imposing on the legal immigration system.

For the time being, the HART Service Center, which is the sixth within USCIS’s Service Center Operations (SCOPS) directorate, will focus solely on four case types:

  • Form I-601A, Application for Provisional Unlawful Presence Waiver;
  • “Bona Fide Determinations” for Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status;
  • Form I-730 Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition; and
  • VAWA-based Form I-360, Petition for Ameriasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant.

Agency officials made clear during a recent public engagement, however, that once the service center is adequately staffed and running, immigration officers assigned to HART will take on additional humanitarian workloads, including certain humanitarian-based adjustment to lawful permanent residency (green card) cases.

USCIS reports it has designed HART to grow to approximately 480 positions to address these four forms, and that the agency is implementing five hiring phases to attract its workforce. HART is currently staffed with 150 positions, which are primarily internal reassignments of current SCOPs personnel. USCIS does not expect to complete the hiring process until the end of 2024, as it must hire and train an additional 330 staff. It is also worth noting that USCIS does not charge fees to cover the cost of this workload because of the humanitarian nature of these case types. The exception is the I-601A, which has a filing fee of $630 (not including the $85 fee for biometrics).

USCIS explained that the addition of a new service center was needed after “a review of USCIS processing times”, stating that “HART is partially the result of the feedback we have received from our partnership stakeholders and community groups.” The agency reports that adjudications for an Application for Provisional Unlawful Presence Waiver, for instance, take USCIS approximately 43 months to process just 80 percent of cases filed at the Potomac Service Center. Adjudications of the Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition, can take USCIS’s Texas Service Center as long as 22.5 months to adjudicate 80 percent of cases, while adjudication of Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status, can take the agency approximately 60 months for that same portion.

USCIS has not published its processing times for “bona fide determinations” for Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status. This is likely because “bona fide determinations” for U nonimmigrant status is a new immigration benefit created by the Biden administration in 2021. This program allows aliens who apply for U visas to receive deferred action (deferral from removal from the United States) and work authorization before a USCIS immigration officer makes an adjudication on the alien’s U visa application. (This program is one of numerous immigration benefit programs created by the Biden administration that are not authorized by law and are subject to serious legal defects.)

USCIS processing times can vary based on the type of application or petition, as well as other factors such as the complexity of the case, the volume of applications received, and any requests for additional evidence. The agency, however, is facing historically high processing times for many of its case types, not only those in the humanitarian docket. Processing Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, based on an adjustment to lawful permanent resident status, for example, is currently taking immigration officers as long as 19 months at the California Service Center. Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, may take immigration officers as long as 22 months to adjudicate depending on the location where an application is filed.

While the increase in processing times is attributable to a number of factors, including severe financial strains and staffing challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and pause in international travel in 2020, the current administration’s priorities and policy changes also play a significant role. The administration’s failure to implement effective fraud deterrence policies while simultaneously creating unauthorized benefit programs to allow hundreds of thousands of additional aliens to receive immigration benefits from USCIS on an annual basis has dramatically impacted USCIS’s ability to administer the legal immigration system efficiently. This is especially true within the agency’s humanitarian portfolio.

My CIS colleagues and I have exhaustively covered the Biden administration’s abuse of its parole authority to bring hundreds of thousands of inadmissible aliens into the United States annually, under new but unauthorized, and in our view, unlawful immigration programs. These programs also have serious costs to the legal immigration system and USCIS, the agency tasked with administering the programs.

The New York Times last week referred to this strategy as opening “a back door to allow hundreds of thousands of new immigrants into the country”, noting specifically that as of mid-April, some 300,000 (primarily inadmissible) Ukrainians had arrived in the United States under various programs — a number greater than all the people from around the world admitted through the United States’ official refugee program in the last five years, as well as an additional 360,000 Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians who are expected to “gain admission” (even though they are legally inadmissible), through similar parole programs introduced on January 5, 2023, by the White House. Here, too, the New York Times correctly noted that these will account for more people than were issued immigrant visas from these countries in the last 15 years combined.

These figures do not include other programs that were created or expanded without legal authorization, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. USCIS must process these applications as well, including their associated work authorization document applications. DACA was created via a policy memorandum under the Obama administration to give administrative reprieve from removal and work authorization documents to certain aliens who came to the United States illegally as minors. While TPS is authorized by statute, the Biden administration has significantly expanded the number of aliens who are eligible for the temporary protection via a legally dubious practice of “re-designating” countries for TPS designations, rather than merely extending the designations as the law allows. Typically, aliens must have been present in the United States on or before the date a country is designated for TPS to be eligible to benefit. Approximately 670,000 aliens from 16 countries have had TPS extended or have become newly eligible since January 2021.

While these programs are primarily concerning because they have been created, in part, to obscure the mass illegal immigration crisis the United States has experienced since January 2021, they also come at a great cost to legal immigrants and the employers who petition for workers under lawful nonimmigrant work programs, which are also administered by USCIS. This can be seen in the agency’s recently proposed fee rule, which disproportionately increased fees for certain immigration categories and suppressed costs for others. For example, the proposed rule will require employers hiring high-skilled foreign workers 70 percent more for beneficiaries on H-1B petitions, 201 percent more for employees on L-1 petitions, and 129 percent more for aliens on O-1 petitions. (H-1B petitions increase from $460 to $780, L-1 petitions increase from $460 to $1,385, and O-1 petitions increase from $460 to $1,055.)

In addition to significantly increasing fees for employers who petition for foreign workers and alien investors, the USCIS proposed fee schedule adds an additional “Asylum Program Fee” to these same employers to cover costs associated with USCIS’s expanding and unfunded asylum docket. Specifically, the proposed fee schedule imposes a new Asylum Program Fee of $600 to be paid by any U.S. employer who files either a Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, or Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, despite having no association or interaction with USCIS’s asylum services. The proposal stated that the new Asylum Program Fee would be due in addition to the fee those petitioners would pay using USCIS’s standard costing and fee calculation methodologies. The need for this fee, however, is directly related to the administration’s failure to deter fraud.

The creation of unauthorized and unappropriated programs diverts agency resources from the adjudication and administration of congressionally authorized visa programs. This results in disproportionate fee increases for benefits while many applicants and beneficiaries experience significant processing delays — even when USCIS charges fees for the new programs. Accordingly, CIS urges DHS to adopt reforms to deter illegal immigration and associated asylum fraud in order to increase agency efficiency and equity in the legal immigration system.