USCIS Bunts on Operating Statistics

By David North on July 19, 2011

Suppose major league baseball released batting statistics that consisted of just two variables, at- bats and strikeouts.

Fans would have no idea of the number of hits, runs, walks, or runs-batted-in – just at-bats and strikeouts, but MLB would say that they were publishing comprehensive data.

That is essentially what USCIS is doing in today's output of floods of operating data.

It records in mind-boggling detail the number of applications for various benefits, and the number of approvals, but not the number of denials. There are pages and pages and pages of data. If a baseball player is rated by the number of hits he makes, a decision-making agency might be rated by how often it detects bad applications.

USCIS is a think-positive, benefits-granting agency; it views denials as necessary evils, but it apparently does not want to publish anything on that subject.

On its page linking to data reports the agency says:

USCIS regularly publishes a variety of reports on the numbers of application receipts and other topics.

That's not quite accurate; what the agency does is to publish some limited data, as it suits its needs, and now is going to produce a lot more limited data, which is, of course, a small step forward. That's commendable.

This publishing event reminds me of the release of Sen. John McCain's medical records during the 2008 campaign. Since the Navy provides excellent medical care and keeps detailed records, and since McCain suffered extensively while in Vietnam prisons, there was much paper. What the senator's staff did was to pile up perhaps a thousand pages of medical records in a given room, and told the press they could spend I think it was up to two hours, each, looking at the collection, but reporters would not be allowed to photograph anything or take notes.

I may have some of the details wrong on those medical records, but the access to such a mass of material, under those circumstances, gave the appearance of transparency, without actually delivering it. USCIS seems to be following the same path.

All of the data seems be organized by USCIS form (e.g., "I-751 Remove the Conditions of Residence - Waived Joint") and there are 68 forms listed on perhaps the most accessible table; then there are six time periods, and under each of them there are columns for "receipts" and "approvals." Now, if you multiply 68 x 6 x 2 you get 816 cells, all jammed into two pages of small type. Here's the link to this table.

This, mind you, is what appears to be the most understandable of the tables. Most of the others add another dimension – data by local office – which produces much paper, but little insight. Some of the tables come in a "comma delimited" or CSV format which contains real information but looks like a dog's breakfast to all except the most gifted computer users. Here's a sample.

The redacting of the denials data – surely known to the agency – gives the viewer the task of figuring out what all the receipt/approvals data actually means.

Both are workload figures somewhat separate from each other. Let's take the data for "I-485 Asylee Adjustment" at the top of the previously cited table. In the first six months of FY 2011 there were 26,944 receipts and 24,814 approvals; now the approvals covered all approvals in the six months whenever the applications were received. The balance of 2,130 includes both forms not yet ruled upon, and forms denied. About all we can say, in analysis, is that most forms are acted upon within the six months, and that most, if not nearly all, are approved; in other words, batting data with the hits not counted.

Moving further down the table we come to one of the many rows dealing with long-abandoned, but still-lingering parts of the immigration system. We find in the same six months that when it comes to "I-485 Indo Chinese Adjustments" there were just five receipts and 19 approvals; how could that happen? There apparently was a backlog of these cold cases in this subcategory when the fiscal year began, which has presumably diminished substantially.

Similarly, there is a line for "Form I-700 SAW (Special Agricultural Worker)" which dates back to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Happily there were no receipts of applications for this subsection of that 25-year-old law, but USCIS did process 11 approvals. Sometimes it takes them a long time.

The heading of the cited table reads: "Service-wide Receipts and Approvals for All Form Types"; that is not correct. The table deals with many forms, but only in the immigration and naturalization categories; there is nothing on numerous nonimmigrant programs. Perhaps that heading, if not the denial of denial statistics, will be corrected in the future.

Denial/approval statistics for specific forms would tell the world which parts of the immigration process have more fraud (or at least more detected fraud) than others. But that, so far, is a secret.

Despite the major failings of this partial disclosure operation, these data do show something significant. In the six months covered, and just dealing with immigration and naturalization forms, USCIS received 2,555,844 of them and approved 2,471,234 cases; that's a 100/97 ratio, suggesting both a huge volume of business and a strong tendency to say "yes."