How USCIS Calculates Processing Times and How It Could Be Improved

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When people think about immigration reform, they usually think about legalization, enforcement, and updating the legal immigration system. However, there are other upgrades to the immigration system that can be implemented by agencies without legislation which would significantly improve efficiency and could ensure that immigrants, their families, and employers receive better information and customer service.

One of these upgrades includes improving how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processes millions of petitions and applications for immigration benefits. The current system leaves people who submit those applications for temporary visas, permanent residency, work authorization, naturalization, or any of the other benefits, wondering when the process will be completed.

Unfortunately many people experience backlogs and delays, which can lead to a great deal of uncertainty. Individuals can lose jobs and benefits, or be forced to delay or cancel employment opportunities or travel plans. While waiting for valid employment authorization, individuals may not be able to renew their driver’s licenses. For employers, adjudication delays can lead to missed hiring opportunities. Businesses may not be able to hire new or retain existing employees due to the backlog, forcing them to use additional resources to hire and train replacements for those who could not continue to work.

In order to help customers estimate when their application will be completed, USCIS’ Office of Performance and Quality (OPQ) regularly calculates processing times—also referred to as cycle times—and posts them on the USCIS website. Processing times are available by location (e.g. National Benefits Center, service center, or field office) and by application type. In an ideal world, the processing times would be available in real time, allowing individuals to know when their paperwork will be completed. Unfortunately, the posted processing times “are not a direct representation of the actual processing time for a given form in the month reported.” A new fact sheet from the American Immigration Council explains how these processing times are calculated.

Each month, USCIS calculates the cycle times by looking at how many cases were pending and how many were completed during the previous month. But the processing time is not really listed in terms of weeks or months each application will take. Sometimes processing times are related to USCIS’s goals. For example, if USCIS set a five month processing time goal for N-400s (naturalization), and applications are being processed in five months or less, the processing time will be listed as five months. If the office is not meeting its goal, the chart lists the date of the last application the office worked on when the data was sent to OPQ.

Unfortunately, the processing times are already out of date the moment they are published, making it very difficult for applicants to get the information they need.  All of this means that customers have trouble figuring out where their applications are in the process, and may have trouble getting assistance from USCIS on long-pending cases. It also means immigrants, their families, and their employers have difficulty planning ahead, making it hard for families and businesses alike. In addition to working on processing applications faster and more efficiently, USCIS needs to rethink how it calculates and publishes processing times.

Photo by David Michalczuk.

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