The Tension Between Mail-Order and Retail Decision-Making at USCIS

By David North on December 17, 2020

The continuing tension between two different kinds of decision-making on individual immigration cases by USCIS was illustrated the other day by a policy alert that makes it more likely that more asylum and refugee cases will be subject to interviews.

An outsider to the immigration field might well ask: "Do you mean that all immigration cases handled by USCIS are not subject to an in-person interview?"

The answer for many years has been "yes." Many, perhaps most, immigration benefits (such as adjustment of status to that of a green card holder) are not subject to in-person interviews; they are, in commercial terms, handled on a paper-only, mail-order basis. The retail, or in-person, approach is the exception, not the rule, with USCIS.

On the other hand, two other migration-control systems, the State Department's visa issuance process and the work of the immigration courts, are predominantly in the retail sector, involving face-to-face interactions between the government, on one hand, and the migrants on the other. Similarly, when an alien (or a citizen) enters the country through a port of entry, there is a personal interaction between the admitting official and the individual, though this is often quite brief.

Once upon a time, most adjustment of status decisions made by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on individual cases were made by an officer following an in-person interview. This process has the advantage of using the officers' experience to sort out valid from invalid applications, but it is slow, expensive, and can lead to widely different standards from office to office. In a centralized, paper-oriented decision process, standards are likely to be more uniform, and it is much less costly. In a sense, there is a conflict between accuracy, on one hand, and efficiency on the other.

The move toward the mail-order approach started with the big legalization program of the Reagan administration; this was the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. It so happens that I received a grant from the Ford Foundation to evaluate the program, and I spent a lot of time in the field doing so. The INS leadership at the time was worried about a possible (perhaps probable) lack of standardization of results from a decentralized system, and opted for a two-level process. First, there would be an in-person interview of the applicant and a review of the papers. The interviewer would then make a recommendation as to acceptance or denial and the papers would be sent to one of four regional centers, where the final decision was made.

My sense at the time was that a lot of first-stage recommendations for denial were reversed by the regional centers; this was particularly true in the farmworker part of the program, where standards were lower — and fraud was more significant — than in the other, broader part of the program. For more detail on this, see this CIS report of 10 years ago.

In the years since, INS, and more recently USCIS, moved toward handling most cases in the regional centers (i.e., by mail-order methods) rather than by in-person interviews.

To a certain extent during the Trump years this trend has been reversed. The most recent policy alert (PA 2020-26), cited earlier, gives USCIS officers a long list of situations in which they can call for an interview, rather than simply making decisions on the applications (and other written information they may have). The new arrangement deals with refugees and asylees seeking to adjust to green card status.

Among the reasons an officer might decide that an interview is called for are these:

  • "Immigration records are insufficient for the officer to determine whether or not the applicant has refugee status."
  • "The applicant has an approved Form I-730, but, if granted overseas, was not interviewed as part of the derivative refugee process or, if granted in the United States, was not interviewed prior to the approval."
  • "The applicant's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fingerprint results indicate that further processing is needed."

A government position, such as this one, to expand the incidence of interviews, is a sign of concern about the quality of the decision-making and is more likely to occur during this than the next administration. In the future, look for an increase in mail-order, rather than retail, decision-making.