USCIS Faces Criticism over Visa Backlog
By Gretchen Reinemeyer, Aaron Matteo Terrazas, and Claire Bergeron
Migration Policy Institute
December 17, 2007
With its backlog of applications and petitions, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is facing growing pressure to streamline its processing procedures.
The backlog has recently received attention from immigrant rights groups and media because it could prevent some lawful permanent residents from gaining citizenship in time to vote in the 2008 presidential election.
In fiscal year 2007, which ended September 30, USCIS received 1.4 million applications for naturalization — nearly double the number received the previous year. Applications received after June 1, 2007, may be subject to processing delays of 16 to 18 months; however, USCIS plans to hire 1,500 employees to help process the backlog.
The increased number of applications may be due, in part, to naturalizing immigrants submitting applications in advance of recent across-the-board fee increases. In July 2007, the fee for naturalization applications rose 80 percent to $595 for adult applicants and to $60 for children. The fees were initially increased in order to expand USCIS capacity and ultimately reduce processing times.
According to USCIS, the processing delays might also be due to the July 2007 increase in the number of available diversity-lottery visas by almost 15,000.
USCIS is already being criticized for lengthy wait times. In a case unrelated to the most recent backlog, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit in Washington on behalf of four legal immigrants whose applications for naturalization have been held up for more than a year because of mandatory background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Last year, ACLU filed a similar lawsuit in California.
An estimated 1 percent of applications get tied up in name checks for more than six months according to USCIS. Following September 11, 2001, policy changes mandated that all references listed on citizenship applications must be checked.
Not all files are stored in computer databases, and some must be searched manually. FBI officials cite this as the primary reason for the delay, and the agency has been working with USCIS to decrease the name-check backlog.
Maine, Oregon Act to Limit Access to Driver's Licenses
Officials in Oregon and Maine are reconsidering policies that grant driver's licenses regardless of state residency or legal status. The actions come in the wake of the highly publicized failure of a proposal by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to make New York State driver's licenses available to all state residents regardless of their legal status.
In November, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed an executive order prohibiting the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) from issuing driver's licenses to individuals who cannot provide a verifiable Social Security number (SSN) or other proof of legal residence.
The executive order, which also prohibits the state DMV from accepting consular cards or foreign birth certificates as valid identification, will take effect on February 4, 2008, following a period of public comment.
In December, the Maine State Legislature began considering recommendations from the Maine Secretary of State to implement a residency requirement for individuals applying for a driver's license.
News reports in the state recently claimed that residents of nearby states, including immigrants, were soliciting driver's licenses in Maine due to the lenient rules.
While the secretary of state report recommends a residency requirement, it also suggests that residency be established with a utility bill with an individual's name, a rent receipt or rental agreement, or "similar documentation [showing] residence in Maine," which does not automatically preclude unauthorized immigrants.
The Maine Secretary of State estimates that the state has issued over 2,500 active driver's licenses to individuals who have no SSN.
DHS to Reconsider "No-match" Rule
- Read more about the changes to the requirements for obtaining an Oregon driver's license here.
- Read Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski's executive order here.
- Read the report of the Maine Secretary of State's Working Group to Examine Laws Governing Eligibility and Documentation Requirements for Driver's Licenses and Non-driver Identification Cards here.
- Read more about Governor Eliot Spitzer's proposal to provide driver's licenses to all New York residents regardless of legal status in the November 2007 Policy Beat.
A District Court judge in Northern California agreed to postpone proceedings on the legality of a proposed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rule regarding "no-match" letters while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — of which ICE is a part — rewrites the rule.
Following an October ruling preventing the Social Security Administration (SSA) and ICE from implementing the rule, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff announced that the agency would not abandon the "no-match" rule.
In addition, SSA announced that it would not send out any of the approximately 140,000 pending "no-match" letters in 2007. SSA sends "no-match" letters to employers who submit more than 10 employee W-2 forms with information (names and Social Security numbers) that cannot be matched with SSA's Social Security database, and whose mismatched W2 forms constitute more than 0.5 percent of all W2 forms the employer submits.
On November 23, DHS filed a brief requesting a stay of proceedings in the case of AFL-CIO v. Chertoff. According to the brief, DHS hopes to rewrite the rule to address the court's concerns and then reverse the preliminary injunction issued by the court in October that prohibited SSA from sending out DHS guidance letters attached with "no-match" letters.
The proposed guidance letters would have instructed employers how to respond to a "no-match" letter to be in compliance with US immigration law.
If the court reverses the preliminary injunction, DHS and SSA will be permitted to implement the amended rule.
State and Local Policy Beat in Brief
- Read the DHS motion to stay proceedings in AFL-CIO v. Chertoff here.
- Read commentary on the AFL-CIO v. Chertoff case from DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff here.
- Read more about SSA "no-match" letters and the proposed DHS guidance letters in MPI's Backgrounder here.
San Francisco Municipal ID Cards. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted this month to begin issuing municipal ID cards in August 2008. According to city officials, ID cards will encourage unauthorized immigrants to report crimes and will increase their access to services such as bank accounts. Several banks, including US Bank, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo, have expressed interest in accepting municipal ID cards to set up a bank account. San Francisco is the largest city to date to issue such an ordinance. New Haven, Connecticut, began offering similar municipal identity cards earlier this year.
CBO Report on Unauthorized Immigrants and State and Local Budgets. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report concluded that taxes generated by unauthorized immigrants do not offset the service provision costs that such immigrants incur to state and local governments. The report examined 29 reports published over the past 15 years that estimate the economic effects of unauthorized immigrants on state and local governments in the areas of education, health care, and law enforcement. While state and local governments do incur costs for providing services to unauthorized immigrants, the report claims these costs represent a small percentage of total expenditures for services to residents.
- Read the San Francisco Board of Trustees ordinance authorizing municipal identity cards here.
- Read about municipal identity cards in New Haven, Connecticut, in the August 2007 Policy Beat.
- Read more about the enforcement of employer sanctions here.
- Read the text of the CBO report here.
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