On February 9, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released data about its progress toward meeting its strategic goals in fiscal year (FY) 2023. For the first time in years, the agency reduced its net backlog, despite having received a record 10.9 million filings. This represents welcome news for an agency which has been under strain for years. However, the report also makes clear that there is far more work to be done.

For the past four fiscal years, USCIS has seen an increase to its net backlog of applications. USCIS defines this backlog to include the number of cases outside of its target processing times (excluding cases where the agency is waiting for a response from an applicant). Between FY 2017 and FY 2019, the net backlog was relatively stable at around 2.4 million cases, but more than doubled to 5 million by FY 2022. USCIS cited a Trump-era hiring freeze and the reduction in adjudications during the COVID pandemic as factors leading to this growth.

Despite these obstacles, the report details considerable successes the agency achieved while primarily relying on funding from fees last updated in 2016. For example, due to increased hiring and new efficiencies in case processing, the net backlog decreased to 4.3 million cases by the end of September 2023.

The agency also says it invested significant resources to remove barriers to naturalization and to use all available employment-based visas. In FY 2023, USCIS completed more than 1 million citizenship cases and brought down the median processing times from 10.5 months to 6.1 months. USCIS’ report states that it has “nearly eliminated” the net backlog of naturalization cases.

In addition, last year the agency processed 192,000 employment-based green card applications, which meant that, for the second year in a row, USCIS (and to a lesser extent, the State Department) ensured that all available employment-based visas were used.

USCIS also says it took steps to address concerns from advocates about work permit backlogs and their impact on immigrant workers. In September, the agency extended the validity period for work permits from two years to five for several categories, including those filed by asylum and residency applicants. This could help the agency decrease its work permit renewal backlogs in the future.

USCIS data confirms that the agency has made progress in reducing work permit delays. Processing times for employment authorization for asylum seekers fell from a high of 7.1 months in FY 2021 to 4 months in FY 2024. The most dramatic drop was for employment authorization for people granted parole, which fell from 6.1 months in FY 2019 to 0.9 months in FY 2024.

Beyond processing improvements, USCIS also implemented several technological ones to its online filing system. This includes new tools like “MyProgress,” which is meant to deliver personalized processing time estimates. The agency also added new online forms, including asylum applications, humanitarian parole requests, and certain work authorization requests. There’s more work to be done to address confusion about USCIS’ actual processing times and some of its website issues, but the expansion of online tools has the potential to help the agency further increase efficiency.

Despite the list of positive achievements in its report, there are plenty of challenges the agency continues to face.

One of the most significant is USCIS’ growing humanitarian caseload. As a percentage of all cases, these have gone from making up 15% in FY 2015 to more than 25% in FY 2023. This includes applications for asylum, as well as parole, survivors of certain crimes and human trafficking, and Temporary Protected Status.

Last year, USCIS had a record-breaking 1 million asylum applications waiting to be adjudicated. Due to having a limited number of staff, it can take years for an applicant to receive an interview. With migrants presenting themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border in historic numbers, and more than 800,000 having entered under new parole programs, this issue is unlikely to subside anytime soon.

Partly to address this issue, USCIS recently updated its filing fees to include an “Asylum Program Fee,” which is meant to help cover costs related to asylum processing, including conducting asylum merits interviews under a rule finalized in May 2022. The fee, however, only applies to employment-based petitions, which is likely to be litigated. Additionally, in October 2023, President Biden requested $755 million for USCIS in a supplemental emergency funding proposal to hire 1,600 asylum officers, but Congress has failed to move that request forward.

While USCIS has made strides to decrease processing times for certain applications and petitions, others continue to take an excessive amount of time. For example, the median processing time for a family-based petition for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens was less than 5 months a decade ago, but it has more than doubled since then. The same goes for green card applications for asylees and refugees.

Nevertheless, USCIS’ achievements for FY 2023 are noteworthy, especially as the agency faces external and internal challenges without a significant investment by Congress. Last year, the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman highlighted his concerns about USCIS’ growing humanitarian workload in his annual report. He recommended that USCIS continue to urge Congress for additional backlog reduction funding, noting that “other agencies receive appropriated funding for similar humanitarian casework.”

While USCIS has proposed new fees to recover the full costs of its services, they are only meant to recover processing costs and to avoid the accumulation of future backlogs. This means the agency will need congressional leaders to provide additional funding to eliminate current backlogs.