The COVID-19 Pandemic Made USCIS Backlogs Go from Bad to Worse

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has a long-standing reputation of suffering from delays, backlogs, and revenue cuts. Once COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, numerous countries, including the US, faced several structural and institutional challenges with regard to immigration. Before the pandemic, US immigration offices were already facing difficulty processing applications in a timely manner. However, once COVID-19 took over, the situation of this government agency went from bad to worse.

The 2021 Annual Report of USCIS Ombudsman assesses the operational challenges faced during the pandemic and how the Agency experienced backlogs of applications “at record levels.” The report explains how the government Agency was already facing structural difficulties before March 2020 – such as revenue shortfalls and insufficient operating costs. However, it was the outbreak of the virus that forced office spaces to shut down, resulting in a further reduction of fee revenue.

The functions and operative steps of USCIS primarily relied on in-person interactions – comprised of physical interviews, biometric verification, and oath-taking ceremonies. Once the Agency offices and consulates were shut down, all the processes needed for approval had to be canceled as well.

By June 2020, USCIS offices started re-opening at limited capacity to prevent the spread of the virus. However, it wasn’t until October 2020 that the offices started operating at 50% capacity. This naturally meant that the field offices were extremely short-staffed and unable to process all pending applications. Consequentially, backlogs and processing time grew at an exponential rate throughout the year.

Long-Lasting Challenges

Two major policy changes were announced during 2020 that had adverse effects on U.S. immigration processing times. The first one being an increase in the application fee. Petitioners and applicants rushed to file for immigration benefits before the government could implement the fee hike. Secondly, the new fiscal year reported new priority dates for immigrant visas – especially those applying for employment-based visas. Tens of thousands of people became eligible for approval, but as a result, and as a result there was a massive influx of applications.

COVID-19 meant downsizing the workforce and restricting the capacity of office space to limited people working at any given time. This resulted in further delays as there weren’t enough people to process new applications and petitions.

Ways to Move Forward

As pointed out in the annual report, the USCIS offices rely exclusively on applicant fees to finance their operations. However, this mechanism has proven to be inefficient and has resulted in further backlogs. In order to salvage the operational and financial conditions of this Agency, the following changes must be immediately implemented:

• Expand electronic filing and processing capabilities; and

• Increase outreach with stakeholders and congressionally appointed funding; and

• Improve coordination between USCIS and other governing institutions.

Luckily, the Biden Administration has acknowledged this systemic inefficiency and has appointed a budget of $350 million to tackle the backlog complication. A funding bill has been put forward by the House Appropriations Committee; however, it will take some time for USCIS to dig itself out of this massive backlog.

If you should have any questions or need more information about the ways in which the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Laws may impact you, your family, your friends or your colleagues, please contact the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Lawyers at the NPZ Law Group – VISASERVE – U.S. Immigration and Nationality Lawyers by e-m