Immigration Processing Can't Keep Up

By Janice Kephart on July 22, 2008

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ombudsman released his 2008 Annual Report. Today the Ombudsman, Michael Dougherty, was at the Heritage Foundation with former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner and Heritage's James Carafano discussing the report's findings. According to the report, the Ombudsman's mission is to "identify areas in which individuals and employers have problems dealing with USCIS, and to the extent possible, propose changes to mitigate those problems."

The Ombudsman's job is important. Yet its statutory parameters only begin to touch on the vast problems with adjudications that have remained unsolved, many of them for two decades. For years, Immigration benefits (i.e., the granting of citizenship, permanent residence, employment authorization, etc.) within legacy INS was the foster child component of this foster child agency. Elevated in status - or quarantined, depending on your point of view - from its sibling functions of border control and internal immigration enforcement with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, USCIS has long been overrun by applications backlogs. These caseloads, poorly managed and inefficiently run, have for years bogged the agency down in legitimate criticisms from every quarter.

These problems make expanding the role of USCIS - say, with a guestworker program - impossible from a good-government perspective. How could any agency that cannot handle 3 million naturalization applications in a timely manner possibly handle 8 to 12 million guestworker applications? This is exactly the concern of the Ombudsman, and I am happy to report Mr. Dougherty, a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Homeland Security and Terrorism who spent months working on "comprehensive immigration reform" for Sen. Kyl (R-AZ), understands this well enough to have commissioned the think tank within DHS, the Homeland Security Institute, with a study to determine what resources and funding requirements it will take for USCIS to handle a guestworker program.

While numbers and graphs make some of us woozy, these answers are necessary. USCIS can't do its job well now, according to Mr. Dougherty's report. I can't imagine the prognosis will be cheerio for a surge of 8 million-plus additional applications. Mr. Dougherty should be commended for not hiding under a rock and claiming this is not his issue, but the next Congress' and the next administration's.

What I do remain concerned about are things either briefly referenced or not discussed at all in this report. Take two comments in the report on page 44. These both seem major to me, considering that Secretary Chertoff has taken on ID verification and border security as top DHS priorities for 2008. For one, the fingerprint storage system is not up and running. Applicants come in, get fingerprints taken, and then the system automatically deletes them after 15 months. Just a tad inefficient, and not particularly helpful to national security either. In addition, the report notes that USCIS:

continues to operate without "wrap around" security checks, which are automatic and real-time security updates from the law enforcement community on individuals who violate criminal laws. With this capability, law enforcement would inform USCIS of any new security concerns that arise without the agency needing to request or resubmit biometrics from the applicant. USCIS stated in April 2008 correspondence to the Ombudsman that it does not expect this feature to be available in the near future.

Ooh la la. We still don't have biometrics cleanly infused in the immigration benefits system and we still are not sure that we are providing immigration benefits to those with a clean immigration history by verifying who they are, or that they have a clean record.

Thanks for letting me know Mr. Dougherty. I have some work to do.