Monday, March 4, 2013

The Nation is ready, The Congress is ready, The President is ready, BUT is DHS Ready for Comprehensive Immigration Reform?


Both the White House and the Republican Party are proposing legislation which would radically change our current immigration laws. To date, all of these proposed plans include a provision which will allow persons illegally in the United States to get on a “path to citizenship”, one similar to the path provided by the amnesty provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).  Should such legislation be signed into law, administration of the amnesty or legalization provisions of the new law would fall within the purview of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, which is currently responsible  for adjudicating requests for immigration and citizenship benefits. This article looks at how this proposed legislation, if enacted, will affect the current operations of USCIS, as well as how it might affect those millions who are striving to immigrate legally to this country under current laws.

Potential effect on the current USCIS workforce

According to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS), an estimated 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants resided in the United States as of January 2011. These estimates, released in March 2012, suggest that the unauthorized population is virtually unchanged compared to the revised 2010 estimate of 11.6 million.  However, as pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, when considering eligible family members waiting abroad the actual number of potential legalization applicants could easily be as many as four times this number.

In order to get a realistic perspective of how Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) could impact the operations of USCIS, we need only look at the legalization effort which was undertaken by INS in the mid 1980s.

During the 1986 IRCA Amnesty about 2.7 people were “legalized” by the INS; this number is only about one quarter of number of persons who are, conservatively, expected apply for amnesty under the various interations of the legislation currently being considered.

It must also be noted that USCIS adjudicated only about 6 million applications for immigration and citizenship benefits ast year. As such, a new amnesty bill could, at minimum, triple the USCIS workload to 18 million applications.

Additionally, one stipulation of all of the proposals which have been put forth so far, is that persons granted lawful status under any CIR legislation would be required to speak and understand English and demonstrate a basic knowledge of U.S. history and civics. As such, this stipulation would require that all of these 11.6 million or more amnesty applicants be interviewed by a USCIS Immigration Services Officer in order to verify their having met this requirement.

In 2010, according to published government records, USCIS adjudicators were only able to interview about 1.2 million applicants for immigration and naturalization benefits (approximately 580,000 applicants for permanent residence and 694,193 applicants for naturalization); as such, any new legislation with an English language and civics requirement would potentially increase this workload ten fold.

One might be thinking at this point that the obvious answer to this issue would be to just hire more USCIS adjudicators to meet these new demands; however, this is easier said than done. First off, USCIS is a fee-based agency, meaning that its operating expenses are covered almost exclusively by the fees which applicants for immigration and citizenship benefits pay the agency, rather than annual budget appropriations, like most other federal government agencies.

As a result, money could not be spent to hire new employees, or to rent new work space and equipment to accomodate these new employees, until new amnesty applications were actually received and the fees collected and processed .

One only need look at what transpired during the 1986 amnesty to see the potential problems that such a situation could cause.  Because the general legalization program in 1986 was to be self-funded through application fees, the INS could not request an appropriation from Congress to fund the initiative in advance of its start up date, which was designated by the Act itself. The INS, therefore, was forced to fund the start-up costs of the program by borrowing against its normal budget. Although application fees eventually generated more revenue than was needed to administer the program, fewer applications were received than expected early in the application process. This led the INS to scale down its legalization staff midway, only to be overwhelmed by a surge of applications at the end of the application period. Again, it must be stressed that this all occurred with a workload which was, conservatively, only one quarter of what could be expected from a 2013 amnesty provision.

Potential effect on current legal immigration

It is estimated that USCIS currently has a backlog of about 4 million applications for immigration benefits. Any new legalization program would add another 12 million applications to this number, in addition to the 7 million new applications which the agency is already expecting to receive during 2013.

It is noted that, before the 1986  legalization program began, there was already a backlog of applications for immigration benefits in the INS. That backlog substantially increased because INS resources were partially diverted by IRCA. Additionally, the number of people receiving permanent residency through IRCA created an increase in applications for family reunification immigration for which the INS’s resources were inadequate[1]. In fact, during the 10 years immediately following the 1986 amnesty, processing times backlogs for applications for naturalization and applications for green cards grew from a few months in the mid 1980s to several years in the mid 1990s.

From the foregoing, it is clear that any new CIR legislation which provides for the legalization of persons illegally in the U.S. will certainly have a deleterious effect on legal immigration, as it will undoubtedly divert current USCIS resources away from the working on these cases to handle amnesty cases.  

As a result, it would be expected that processing times for applications for legal immigration benefits will grow considerably, and persons who have been patiently waiting to immigrate to this country legally, by virtue of sponsorship by close family members or employers who are United States citizens, will have to wait even longer for their visas.

Strain on IT USCIS Automated Systems

It’s often popularly stated that the capacity of our technology changes every 18 months. If this is true, to say that USCIS’ automated support systems are antiquated is an understatement. Even in today’s digital world, USCIS still uses a paper-based system for accepting and processing the vast majority of the approximately 7 million applications it receives each year. To support this paper process, the agency utilizes a patchwork of a few new and many very old automated systems.

Currently, USCIS is dependent upon two major automated case management systems CLAIMS[2] 3.0 and CLAIMS 4.0, to manage the bulk of the applications for immigration benefits it adjudicates. It should be noted that CLAIMS 3.0 was developed back in the early 1990s, and, technologically, has changed very little since that time. The newer CLAIMS 4.0 system, is more than a dozen years old, and currently processes only a small percentage of the applicant types filed with USCIS. Although the agency is, at present, working to develop a new case management system under its Transformation initiative, this solution is years, if not decades, away from fruition, and will certainly not be a factor should CIR legislation be passed this year.

So, USCIS which is operating using a collection of miscellaneous or incongruous information technologies, which are, today, straining under the onus of their current workload, will be asked to double, triple or even quadruple this work load, should CIR become a reality. This will most certainly constitute a receipe for disaster.


In Conclusion

If legislation similar to what is being presently discussed becomes law, implementation by Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services, will be overwhelmed with work. Delays in processing new applications for amnesty will be extensive, and it is not inconceivable that applications for immigration benefits which now take months to process, could take years to complete. Delays in all other work of the agency will, absent enormous increases in staff, also be extended by years. Thus, we feel strongly that Congress should simultaneously address the broader impact on the the primary agency to insure timely implementation and completion of the proposal.

A manager at USCIS facing having to implement what is passed. (name withheld)
  


[1] Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, Migration Policy Institute, 2005
[2] Computer Linked Automated Information Management System




---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Current or former INS/USCIS/ICE/CBP employees: we want you to make www.insideins.com your forum to share with your fellow employees and tell the American public your thoughts and concerns regarding the issues and challenges facing DHS Immigration agencies. So please send those thoughts to us at insiders@insideins.com (please do not include any attachments). For current and former employees, please rest assured that, if you wish not to be identified, your anonymity will be guaranteed if your thoughts are published in this forum. Additionally, anyone who has comments on this or any other story appearing in this blog, please share them with us at comments@insideins.com.