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Archaic System Slowed Immigration Benefits Amid Pandemic: Report

Jan. 3, 2022, 11:08 PM

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ reliance on paper files limited its ability to process benefits even after reopening offices during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog.

Ineffective technology further slowed the work of USCIS, the Homeland Security office charged with adjudicating immigration benefits as well as temporary work visas. Those challenges added to wait times for applicants and fueled a growing backlog of cases at the agency, the report found. The Office of Inspector General report was issued Dec. 28 but released to the public Monday.

The inspector general recommended that USCIS update its pandemic response plan to incorporate additional technology and adopt a plan to digitize work on benefits. The agency said in its response that plans to fulfill both recommendations are underway.

President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to reduce wait times at USCIS, but backlogs have continued to grow over the last year. Immigration groups have filed multiple class actions against the agency in recent months over protracted wait times for benefits.

USCIS can electronically process only 17 of 102 benefits it adjudicates. The remaining benefits were slowed by office closures in response to the pandemic at the beginning of 2020. Even after those offices reopened, limited access to facilities constrained the work of staff, according to the report.

Staff have had limited opportunities to print and scan documents, get signatures from supervisors, and mail forms to applicants while the pandemic has continued. Technology performance issues also slowed work approving new benefits. Field and asylum offices also didn’t have access to enough devices like tablets to complete video interviews after reopening, the report found.

Those challenges drastically slowed the work of the agency, the inspector general found. Between March and June 2020, USCIS completed 50% fewer cases compared to the same period in the prior year.

USCIS said in its response that a report on lessons learned from the Covid-19 experience will be incorporated into an updated pandemic action plan by the end of the year. The agency in September sent lawmakers a five-year plan to completely digitize its benefits work.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com