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Foreign workers and the employers that sponsor them continue to experience processing delays after filing for immigration benefits and services, despite substantial fee increases that went into effect in 2016, according to the federal office charged with improving immigration administration.
The Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) Ombudsman's 2017 Report to Congress calls on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to improve the accuracy of processing forecasts, ensure the administrative review process is more transparent, and refocus efforts on moving from paper-based to electronic filing and case management.
Since 2006, USCIS has spent over $3 billion on its modernization project to go digital and to improve service, operational efficiency and security. However, "the decade-long effort to accomplish this initiative has thus far yielded minimal positive impact to applicants, who can now fully perform just two functions online, accounting for less than 10 percent of the agency's workload," said CIS Ombudsman Julie Kirchner.
The modernization project is due to be completed in March 2019, but that date is likely to be postponed given the little progress made at this point. The initiative has been identified by the Government Accountability Office as one of the top 10 high-risk federal investments.
Lack of Human Resources
Historically, USCIS has tied increases in filing fees—the agency's services are almost entirely funded by application and petition fees—with commitments to reduce processing times.
The most recent increase raised fees by an average of 21 percent and went into effect in December 2016. But processing delays at the agency have continued, "largely due to fluctuations in filing levels, the lag time between fee increases and the onboarding of new staff, the complexity of case review, enhanced fraud detection, and new security check requirements," according to Kirchner.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas]
"We have not seen any real changes in processing at USCIS since new fees were implemented," said Justin Storch, manager of agency liaison at the Council for Global Immigration, a nonprofit trade association in the Washington, D.C., area that supports high-skilled, employment-based immigration. "Furthermore, we are concerned that USCIS revenue will be negatively impacted, as they have turned off a valuable revenue stream by suspending premium processing for H-1Bs, a major revenue-generator for the agency."
In fiscal year 2016, USCIS received 349,452 inquiries related to cases pending outside processing times, amounting to over 20 percent of total customer service inquiries. The majority of requests for case assistance received by the Ombudsman's office—almost 70 percent—also involved processing delays.
"Customer-reported adjudication delays, coupled with the agency's 1.5 million case backlog, reflect that USCIS is currently unable to meet its processing time goals and is unlikely to do so in the near future," Kirchner said.
Processing times have also been impacted by the introduction of a Quality Workplace Initiative, which de-emphasized quantitative productivity measures in favor of quality and resources being diverted to unanticipated programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which has received over 1 million applications since 2012.
According to a recent trends report conducted by immigration services provider Envoy, 84 percent of employers said having quicker processing times is "very to extremely" important for the government to improve the system. "With even longer government processing times now in effect, employers need to ensure their internal processing time in preparing the application is as efficient as possible," said Envoy CEO Dick Burke.
In fact, USCIS has indicated to the Ombudsman's office that processing times will get worse before they get better due to a lack of staff resources, especially as more is asked of agency officers, including enhanced security checks, social media vetting, and additional fraud detection audits and site visits. USCIS plans to partially address its staffing shortfall by seeking congressional approval to use premium processing fee revenue to fund additional staff positions.
It's notable that the agency telegraphed its intention to spend more resources on site visits and fraud detection audits, which can be stressful and result in large fines for seemingly minor paperwork errors, Burke said. "Employers must ensure they have a plan for if and when an officer comes to their location and that their employees' status is up to date and accurate. Keeping digital files of employee public access files can help to ensure that they are accurate and easily accessible when a site visit happens."
Processing Calculations Flawed
The agency's publicly posted case processing times are another area the Ombudsman's office flagged for improvement.
Processing forecasts are an essential tool for employers conducting workforce planning and for workers following their cases. "For strategic workforce planning, employers need to know how long it will take for their foreign national employees to get visas or other work authorization," Storch said. "Without reliable information from USCIS, employers have unpredictable circumstances for employee start dates, and planning for projects and business processes can be affected."
The Ombudsman report cited several challenges the agency faces in developing a more-accurate methodology for calculating processing times, including relying on data from multiple case management systems across the country and waiting on field offices to self-report data.
Appeals Office Credited
The Ombudsman credited the USCIS Administrative Appeals Office (AAO), which allows employers to appeal agency denials, for improving its processing times by completing most administrative appeals within 180 days. But it stated that anticipated processing times could be more accurate if the time it takes to conduct the initial field review was included.
AAO decisions were also cited for a recent upgrade in transparency. Until recently, many nonprecedent AAO decisions dismissing an appeal did not include a detailed analysis, preventing employers from understanding why their appeal was dismissed. There is now an in-depth analysis section in most of the AAO's nonprecedent decisions, and a focus on using plain language, according to the Ombudsman report.
"This improvement in decisions provides transparency and helps individuals, employers and their representatives better understand the reasoning behind the outcome of their appeal," Kirchner said.
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