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A newly released strategic plan at the U.S. agency charged with oversight of immigration promises to tackle backlogs and delays in applications, and improve the experience of would-be immigrants and investors hoping to immigrate to the United States. 

This renewed focus on speeding up the process is welcome news for those with applications in process, or those considering a move to the United States. According to a December, 2022 report by the Manhattan Institute, high skilled immigrant applications that take a single business day to be processed in the United Kingdom can take several years in the U.S.

“A record backlog of immigration applications has resulted in record-long wait times for high- skilled immigrants to come to the U.S. to work, invest, and innovate. The U.S. takes two to 10 times as long to process most employment and skills-based immigration applications as do other rich English-speaking nations.”

While the pandemic made things worse, it did not create the current crisis, which has been years in the making. Recommendations for addressing this backlog in the report include hiring more staff, increasing fees to provide the agency with adequate resources, and using technology to streamline the filing and revalidation systems. Recommendations that have been echoed by other civil society groups and stakeholders.

For once, it appears as if the government was listening. 

The newly released U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services strategic plan covers the next three fiscal years, ending in 2026, and highlights three long-term goals:

  • To strengthen the U.S. immigration system: including reducing waiting times, clearing backlogs and reducing paperwork;
  • Invest in the agency’s workforce: including hiring and training new agents and adjudicators to radically expand processing capacity; and, 
  • Promote effective management: including digitizing files, making better use of technology and streamlining vetting and recruitment. 

The first identified goal under the heading of strengthening the system is « reducing the time that individuals wait for decisions » and a commitment to reducing both wait times and the current backlog plaguing the system are a through line that can be seen across the document. 

The plan commits to providing additional resources to recruit and train new USCIS agents and adjudicators, which is perhaps the single most important factor in reducing wait times. 

But applicants and prospective applicants may need to temper their enthusiasm. In their 2022 annual report, the agency’s ombudsman noted it takes an average of 241 days to train a newly hired USCIS adjudicator. That means that even with an immediate commitment to hiring, applicants will need to wait a few more months before we start to see sustained improvements. 

“USCIS has always had its share of backlog issues,”  said USCIS Ombudsman Phyllis Coven in a recent interview,  “but none so severe in recent memory as the ones it currently confronts. These lengthy processing times and the high number of unadjudicated cases—created out of the pandemic’s unprecedented effect on [the agency’s] ability to operate, insufficient revenue and employee attrition—have had a massive snowball effect on the agency’s operations.”

A pandemic dip in applications significantly reduced the agency’s cash flow, and although it avoided the need to furlough staff, many left anyway out of concern for their job security. 

Addressing the current backlog of applications (5 million of roughly 8.5 million applications were delayed past their processing deadlines as of April, 2022) means hiring thousands of new agents, and that takes money. 

Which brings us to the other piece of good news: filing fees are going up in a big way. The steep fee increases are currently pending but are expected to come into force later this year and raise an additional $4.5 billion in annual revenue for the USCIS. 

While it might seem counterintuitive to suggest fee increases are good for those paying them, in this case higher fees are a price most would gladly pay to see their applications fast tracked through the adjudication process. 

Another piece of good news in the strategic plan is a commitment to “review regulations and policy documents to identify and remove barriers for those we serve.” A commitment that includes “eliminating unnecessary, redundant questions and reducing the complexity of forms. USCIS will increase access to e-filing of forms while maintaining the availability of paper forms to bridge ‘the digital divide.’”

The agency will also establish secure online accounts for applicants, allowing them to file paperwork electronically, access a personalized processing time estimate, and expand the use of video-conferencing for interviews. All of which would ease the burden on applicants, while also speeding up processing times. 

A touch of skepticism is never unwarranted when it comes to government promises, but the strategic plan signals a clear intention to take the necessary steps to address waiting times, including hiring and training thousands of new adjudicators. Better yet, it is accompanied by a clear plan for how to raise the funds required to support these changes. 

Once these policies are fully implemented, we could see that waiting times for processing of high skilled immigrant applications come into line with other developed countries — where delays are typically measured in weeks rather than years. 

That is welcome news for all prospective immigrants, and especially for those whose applications have been languishing in this massive backlog. Perhaps there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel?

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