|On June 25, 2012, the Acting Ombudsman Debra Rogers submitted the 2012 Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman's Annual Report to Congress. The Ombudsman's Office, established by Section 452 of the Homeland Security Act, helps individuals and employers in resolving problems with USCIS. The office also makes recommendations to USCIS on ways to fix systematic issues and improve immigration services.
In her opening message, the Acting Ombudsman Rogers writes:
"Our mission is to assist individuals and employers who have encountered problems with the immigration benefits system. We are constantly striving to find new and better ways to perform this function. In this report, we identify some of the difficulties encountered by USCIS' customers and offer potential solutions."
The 2012 Annual Report includes an overview of the Ombudsman's Office mission and services, a review of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' initiatives, and summaries of issues affecting the delivery of immigration services in the areas of employment, family and children, humanitarian service, and customer service.
USCIS Year in Review
According to the report, USCIS implemented new outreach efforts, which include:
2012 Areas of Study: Issues of Immigration Services Implementations Recommended Solutions
- Expanded Information Services: USCIS added enhanced tools to its website,www.uscis.gov, such as a news ticker, live streaming and improved data tracking.
- Multilingual Engagements: USCIS launched a Chinese-language series called "Jaio Líu," in addition to current Spanish-language series "Enlace." Each series focuses on a different immigration and citizenship topic and this, year USCIS has coordinated more than 30 national and local events in Spanish, Arabic, French, Amharic, Chinese and Vietnamese.
- Immigration Services for the U.S. Military: USCIS fully implemented the "Naturalization at Basic Training Program" in partnership with the Department of Defense. Since the program began in 2010, more than 3,800 U.S. service members have become U.S. citizens upon graduation from basic training. As of 2012, the Army Navy, Air Force and Marines have undertaken to provide U.S. service members with the opportunity to apply for naturalization during basic training.
- The Unauthorized Practice of Immigration Law Initiative: Since the inception of the "national multi-agency initiative to combat immigration services scams," USCIS has distributed 260, 000 brochures in 14 different languages, and hosted 88 engagements. Commenced as a pilot program in Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno, Los Angeles, New York, and San Antonio, USCIS plans to expand the Unauthorized Practice of Immigration Law Initiative (UPIL) in 2012.
- The Entrepreneurs in Residence Program: Through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Loaned Executive Program, USCIS has enlisted entrepreneurs and academics with expertise in business innovation and information technology to help refine USCIS policies and training.
Family and Children
- "Employment Authorization Documents: Meeting the 90 Day Mandate and Minimizing the Impact of Delay on Individuals and Employers." According to the report, on July 18, 2011, the Ombudsman's Office made recommendations to help USCIS reduce EAD processing delays, meet its regulatory mandate, and improve customer service. USCIS responded to those recommendations on April 11, 2012 and initiated a data review to better understand the extent of the issue.
- "Recommendations to Improve the Quality in Extraordinary Ability and Other Employment-Based Adjudications." According to the report, on December 29, 2011, the Ombudsman's Office published recommendations for improving the quality of extraordinary ability and certain other employment-based adjudications. Stakeholders raised concerns about the subjective nature of final merits determination. As of the publication of the 2012 Annual Report, USCIS had not yet issued a formal response to the recommendations.
- "Healthcare Immigration Concerns." According to the report, about a quarter of U.S. physicians are international medical graduates that require USCIS authorization to work in the United States. The Ombudsman's Office met with stakeholders to discuss the issues of healthcare professionals applying for immigration benefits. The Office is reviewing the issues and plans to publish recommendations in the next 180 days.
- "Validation Instrument for Business Enterprises." In March 2011, USCIS began using the Validation Instrument for Business Enterprises (VIBE) to evaluate the viability of a petitioning company. Stakeholders have reported that, at times, VIBE data on joint ventures, new companies, and entities with complex corporate structures is inaccurate. The Ombudsman's Office continues to bring stakeholder concerns regarding the effect of VIBE to the attention of USCIS.
- "EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program." In 1990, Congress established the fifth employment-based preference category for immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. to engage in commercial enterprise that will benefit the U.S. economy and directly create at least ten full-time jobs. According to the report, in March 2009, the Ombudsman's Office made recommendations regarding improvements to the EB-5 program as, then, many of the 10, 000 available EB-5 visas were unused. Although the EB-5 program has increased in popularity, a large percentage of available EB-5 visas remain unused each year.
- "Special Immigrant Juvenile Adjudication: An Opportunity for Adoption of Best Practices." According to the report, on April 15, 2011, the Ombudsman's Office published recommendations aimed at strengthening the Special Immigration Juvenile (SIJ) program. USCIS responded to the Ombudsman's recommendations on July 13, 2011, verifying that it will continue to develop specialized training for officers who make decisions on SIJ status and that it has taken measures to ensure that SIJ decision-making processes are completed within the 180-day requirement. However, USCIS rejected the Office's recommendation that it "cease requesting evidence underlying state court determinations of foreign child dependency."
- "Conditional Permanent Residence." Under INA Section 216, the spouse of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, married for less than two years at the date of admission, receives conditional permanent resident status for a period of two years. Some of the issues stakeholders reported were the absence of any notification that conditional resident status is expiring, problems obtaining proof of status while Form I-751 is pending, lack of guidance on how a conditional resident can change a petition from a joint filing to a waiver application, problems connected with files being unavailable to adjudicators, issuance of unclear Requests for Evidences (RFEs), inconsistent decisions, and insufficient training regarding the adjudication of battered spouse waiver petitions. The Ombudsman's Office plans to issue recommendations within the next 180 days.
- "Survivor Benefits: The Adjudication of Benefits Requests Made Pursuant to Immigration and Nationality Act Section 204(1)." According to the report, on October 28, 2009, Congress enacted "Immigration and Nationality Act Section 204(1)" to expand immigration benefits for certain surviving relatives in the family and employment preference categories, asylees, and those who have T (trafficking) or U (crime victim) non-immigrant status. USCIS has not issued the new regulations needed to implement the act and ensure that petitions for eligible surviving beneficiaries are properly adjudicated. The Ombudsman's Office is formally reviewing stakeholder concerns and plans to publish recommendations within the next 180 days.
- "Addressing the Needs of U.S. Service Members and their Families." According to the report, on July 9, 2010, 18 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, urging her to address the immigration needs of U.S. service members. In response, Secretary Napolitano outlined options available, stating that "on a case-by-case basis" DHS will consider parole and deferred action to minimize periods of family separation and to facilitate adjustment of status for spouses, parents, and children of military members. To date, USCIS has not provided its field offices with guidance on how to administer discretionary relief for family members of U.S. service members. The Ombudsman's Office has repeatedly raised these issues with USCIS, emphasizing the impact on military families.
Customer Service Recommendations
- "Deferred Action: Recommendations to Improve Transparency and Consistency in the USCIS Process." USCIS, along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), holds the authority to consider deferred action. Stakeholders have reported a lack of clear, consistent information regarding who may request deferred action and how a request should be submitted. According to the report, on July, 11, 2011, the Ombudsman's Office published a formal recommendation regarding the USCIS deferred action process. On October 27, 2011, USCIS issued a response and committed to issuing internal standard operating procedures to ensure consistency in the processing and determination of deferred action requests and to tracking data regarding the number of deferred action requests.
- "Employment Authorization for Asylum Applicants: Recommendations to Improve Coordination and Communication." According to federal regulations, USCIS, or the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), is required to make decisions on an asylum application within 180 days. If more than 180 days have passed since the filing of an application and the delay is not the fault of the asylum seeker, he/she may apply for employment authorization. USCIS and EOIR commonly refer to the monitoring of the time the asylum has been pending as the "asylum clock." However, asylum applicants and their representatives have expressed frustration at the scarcity of public information about how the asylum clock functions and the lack of avenues available to effectively and efficiently resolve asylum clock problems. On August 26, 2011, the Ombudsman's Office published a recommendations regarding employment authorization for asylum applicants. On January 4, 2012, USCIS released a response concurring with the Ombudsman's Office recommendations.
- "Ensuring a Fair and Efficient Asylum Process for Unaccompanied Children." With the passage of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims' Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), Congress identified specialized needs for "unaccompanied alien children" seeking asylum and recognized the importance of governing regulations. The Ombudsman's Office is examining the procedures available for unaccompanied children who want to file asylum applications with USCIS and plans to publish recommendations within the next 180 days.
- "Employment Authorization for Vulnerable Populations." In 2009, the Ombudsman's Office recommended that USCIS implement procedures to provide T and U visa applicants with employment authorization during the pendency of their applications. The Ombudsman's Office plans to follow up on its 2009 recommendations regarding employment authorization for vulnerable populations and provide further recommendations to USCIS.
Over the course of the next year, the Ombudsman's Office will continue to review USCIS' policies and processes with an emphasis on enhancing technological tools to aid in the adjudication process, improving customer service, ensuring access to immigration benefits for vulnerable groups, and implementing rules and regulations in a fair, consistent, and effective manner.
- "USCIS Service Requests: Recommendations to Improve the Quality of Responses to Inquiries from Individuals and Employers." On March 7, 2012, the Ombudsman's Office published a formal recommendation covering the USCIS Service Management Tool (SRMT). While SRMT has enhanced USCIS' ability to quickly respond to customer inquiries, stakeholders report that many of the responses fail to address the underlying issues or prove a substantive response. On June 14, 2012, USCIS issued a response, outside of the 2012 reporting period.
- "Recommendations Regarding USCIS' Role in Petition Information Management Service." In 2007, the U.S. Department of State began using the Petition Information Management Service (PIMS) to improve the security and efficiency of the visa issuance process. On May 16, 2012, the Ombudsman's Office mad recommendations to USCIS to improve communication with DOS in ways that would enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of PIMS. As of the publication of the 2012 Annual Report, USCIS had not yet issued a response.
- "The Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program: Improving the Process for Individuals, Employers, and USCIS Customer Agencies." The Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program is an inter-governmental initiative designed to aid federal, state, and local benefit-granting agencies in determining an applicant's immigration status. The Ombudsman's Office is formally reviewing customer-reported issues and plans to issue recommendations within 180 days.
- "Notices to Appear, Removal Priorities, and Immigration Court Docket Efficiency." USCIS has the authority to issue Notices to Appear (NTAs) placing individuals in removal proceedings. Legally sound charging documents, DHS-wide removal priorities, and careful coordination among USCIS, ICE, and EOIR are essential to the efficient processing of immigration benefits applications, as well as efficient administration of the EOIR docket. The Ombudsman's Office is reviewing measures to enhance interagency cooperation and plans to issue formal recommendations within 180 days.
- "Representation Issues: The Role of Attorneys and Other Representatives in a Non-Adversarial Process." On January 17, 2012, USCIS issued a proposed policy memorandum focused on the role of attorneys and other representatives. On February 14, 2012, the Ombudsman's Office provided feedback regarding the policy memorandum. After the close of the reporting period, on May 23, 2012, USCIS issued an update to the memorandum. The Ombudsman's Office continues to monitor this issue.
- "The USCIS Administrative Appeals Office." When USCIS denies certain applications or petitions, affected individuals and employers may appeal the denial to the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO). The Ombudsman's Office is examining delays encountered by stakeholders when submitting appeals to the AAO.