2022 State Of New American Citizenship Report

The USA also has program delivery problems:

Surging BacklogCitizenship Application Filed Naationwide

A look at the past decade indicates a worrying trend.

Although application volume was expected to fall, the volume increased to almost 1.2 million applicants through the end of 2021, and although processing volume had begun to increase in 2019, the cessation of processing applications due to COVID-19 has led to a surge in the backlog of pending applications, with nearly 800,000 applications still pending by the end of 2021.

USCIS, the federal agency responsible for processing citizenship applications, has defended itself by noting that the backlog more than doubled during the Obama administration. This is true: the backlog rose from nearly 292,000 in September 2010 to over 636,000 by the time Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017.

But USCIS has also claimed that the surge in applications during 2016 and 2017 created a “record and unprecedented” workload. A look at the past 3 decades shows, however, that this is not true.

BACKLOGS IN CONTEXT

In 2007, citizenship applications surged to nearly 1.4 million, far higher than the recent uptick. This was driven in part by a looming 80% application fee hike that year, and an increase in newly eligible immigrants who had obtained their green cards 5 years earlier under the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act of 2000.

USCIS responded with a surge in processing volume the following year, and the backlog plunged to a 30-year low of about 257,000 in 2009.

In the mid-1990s, there was a truly “record and unprecedented” surge in citizenship applications, driven in part by a corresponding increase in newly eligible immigrants who had received green cards under the Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986 (IRCA, also known as the “Reagan Amnesty”). Between 1995 and 1998, application volume stayed well above 900,000, peaking at over 1.4 million in 1997. Although the backlog initially shot past 2 million in 1997-1998, USCIS responded with a comparable surge in processing volume that appears to have tamed the backlog by 1999-2000.

The data indicate that when USCIS devotes sufficient resources to a citizenship application surge, it is possible to dramatically reduce the backlog within one year. That’s what happened in 2000, 2007, and again in 2012.

On the other hand, when USCIS fails to devote sufficient resources, backlogs can get way out of hand. That’s what happened in the mid-1990s, and it appears to be happening again.

FALLING BEHIND

Pace of citizenship backlog reduction

Another way to evaluate this problem is to measure how efficiently USCIS beats back its backlogs. If USCIS processed every citizenship application it received in a given year, plus the applications that were pending from the previous year, that would yield a “backlog completion” rate of 100%.

In reality, USCIS achieved a backlog completion rate of 77% in 2009 — a 30-year high — and this number has been trending downward ever since. There was a 10-point drop in backlog completion between 2016 and 2017 (from 63% to 53%), but backlog completion crept back up to 67% in 2019 before falling drastically in 2020 to 47%, which was the lowest backlog completion rate since 2007 (39%).

By the end of fiscal year 2021, however, the rate at which USCIS was completing naturalization cases had recovered somewhat, to just under 52%. Unfortunately, comparing the fourth quarter of FY2021 with the first two quarters of FY2022, a trend is not immediately apparent: USCIS finished Q4 of 2021 with a backlog completion rate of 24%, but by the end of December 2021 it had dropped to 22% before recovering to 25% at the end of Q2 in March 2022. USCIS’s year-end data will reveal if the agency was able to maintain its improving overall pace of clearing the citizenship backlog.

SURGING WAIT TIMES

Processing times citizenship

Growing backlogs have direct and negative consequences for immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens: They have to wait longer for their applications to be processed by the government.

Here the trend is unmistakable: Between 2012 and 2016, median application processing times hovered between about 4.5 to 6 months, before shooting past 8 months in 2017 and hovering at about 10 months in 2018 and 9 months in 2020. Compounding the worrisome trend, starting in March 2020 the coronavirus lockdown postponed the final steps for naturalization—interviews and oath ceremonies — until offices reopened in June 2020.

Source: 2022 State Of New American Citizenship Report

USA: Federal Government Faces Thousands of Lawsuits Over Immigration Backlog

USCIS, like Canada’s Passport program, operates on a revolving fund meaning that as demand rises and falls, so do revenues. And like Canada, program streamlining and simplification are needed in any case:

Despite pledges from the Biden administration last year to combat processing delays and backlogs at U.S. immigration agencies, a new report published by Syracuse University findsthat by the end of FY 2022 in September, over 6,000 lawsuits will have been filed against the federal government since September 2021 to compel action from U.S. immigration authorities. This is a 50 percent increase in lawsuits compared to the previous fiscal year.

But President Joe Biden can only shoulder so much of the blame. Shortly after former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the federal government implemented a broad hiring freeze on all nonmilitary employees that lasted for several months. In February 2020, the Trump administration directly targeted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), freezing hiring for all nonasylum agent employees. Funded by the fees on paperwork submissions, USCIS’ revenue dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic as applications dwindled, prompting the administration to furlough three-quarters of the government’s immigration work force in the summer of 2020. Even though the furlough was resolved in August 2020 by Congress, many employees left the agency permanently, worried that it would become a permanent layoff.

Source: Federal Government Faces Thousands of Lawsuits Over Immigration Backlog

USCIS Issues Immigration Rule To Expand Premium Processing

May be some merit in exploring premium service options for economic and family class given backlogs and likely lengthy time to reduce the backlogs. We do so for passports:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced a final rule to expand premium processing, which will allow employers and individuals to pay a higher fee in exchange for quicker processing times in certain immigration categories. USCIS also announced a temporary final rule on employment authorization renewals and targets to reduce backlogs and processing times. Employers, attorneys and foreign nationals with long waits welcomed expanded premium processing but hope the time horizons for implementing the measures will be quicker than those announced.

Why the Rule is Important: USCIS processing times are long and remain a chief complaint of the individuals, employers and attorneys who interact with the U.S. immigration system. Catherine RampellMichelle HackmanMiriam JordanDara Lind and other journalists have described the impact of long delays on the spouses of H-1B visa holders and others waiting for employment authorization documents (EADs) or an EAD renewal. Wasden Banias and other firms have filed lawsuits to compel USCIS to process cases more quickly.

Expanding premium processing does not solve USCIS processing issues. However, it provides the agency with more revenue that can be used to address those issues and can help individuals and their employers overcome processing delays by paying an additional fee. The new rule fulfills a mandate from Congress.

What Will the Premium Processing Rule Do?: In an appropriations bill that became law on October 1, 2020, the USCIS Stabilization Act expanded USCIS authority “to establish and collect additional premium processing” fees. USCIS states that it will adopt a phased implementation of premium processing because the law specifies it cannot worsen existing wait times when implementing or expanding premium processing. 

USCIS will expand premium processing for Forms I-539(application to change/extend status), I-765 (application for employment authorization) and I-140 (immigrant petition for alien work) as soon as feasible. “DHS plans on a phased implementation strategy to allow current premium processing revenue to pay for development and implementation costs associated with expanding availability of the service,” according to USCIS. 

“DHS plans to implement expansion for certain categories of Forms I-539, I-765 and both of the new I-140 classifications in FY 2022,” states USCIS. “DHS estimates that it will not be able to expand premium processing to the additional categories of Forms I-539 and I-765 until FY 2025 due to the possibility that premium processing revenues do not yet exist to cover any potential costs of hiring additional staff to expand premium processing to these additional categories without adversely affecting other benefit’s processing times, as directed by Congress.”

The rule will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. These are the forms that will become eligible for premium processing first:

· “Form I-140 requesting EB-1 immigrant classification as a multinational executive or manager or EB-2 immigrant classification as a member of professions with advanced degrees or exceptional ability seeking a national interest waiver (NIW). Fee: $2,500. Timeframe: 45 days;

· “Form I-539 requesting a change of status to F-1, F-2, J-1, J-2, M-1, or M-2 nonimmigrant status or a change of status to or extension of stay in E-1, E-2, E-3, H-4, L-2, O-3, P-4, or R-2 nonimmigrant status. Fee: $1,750. Timeframe: 30 days; and

· “Form I-765 requesting employment authorization. Fee: $1,500. Timeframe: 30 days.”

“DHS is prioritizing premium processing for some Form I-765 categories,” according to USCIS. “DHS anticipates to begin premium processing Employment Authorization Documents for students applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT) and exchange visitors beginning in FY 2022.”

Analysis of the Rule: “The new premium processing regulation is a welcome step forward by USCIS and provides an important option for relief to massive processing delays for some individuals and businesses,” said Kevin Miner of Fragomen in an interview. “However, much remains unknown. In particular, the rule notes that while USCIS intends to implement premium processing for certain EADs (employment authorization documents) and dependent extensions this year, it may be several years before it expands premium processing to all categories of EADs and dependent extensions. 

“Just having the rule in place isn’t useful if the agency takes years to implement it. I am hopeful that USCIS will be strategic in how it handles this implementation. For instance, if the agency were to implement premium processing for all initial EAD applications, this would be a major help for individuals and businesses while allowing USCIS to manage its workload. The rules that already exist extending EADs where there is a timely filed renewal combined with the ability to premium process the initial request for an EAD would go a long way toward solving the very difficult interruptions in work authorization that we are so commonly seeing.”

“While the stakeholder community is grateful for the relatively quick expansion of premium processing to additional I-140 categories, the delayed implementation for Forms I-539 and I-765 is disappointing,” said Dagmar Butte of Parker Butte and Lane in an interview. “Since, generally speaking, I-140 filers already have status and work permission while they wait for their applications to be adjudicated, the individuals most impacted by the continued delays are those who cannot work until the I-539 (application to change/extend status) and I-765 (application for employment authorization) are adjudicated.”

“EADs are included in the rule,” said Miner. “We know that premium processing for EADs will cost $1,500 and result in an adjudication within 30 days. The big unknown is how soon USCIS will implement premium processing for EADs, and for which ones. The rule leaves it to the agency to implement this by putting a notice on its website, so we have to wait and see.”

New USCIS “Cycle Time” Processing Goals: USCIS also announced it will establish new internal “cycle time” goals. “A cycle time measures how many months’ worth of pending cases for a particular form are awaiting a decision,” according to USCIS. “As an internal management metric, cycle times are generally comparable to the agency’s publicly posted median processing times. Cycle times are what the operational divisions of USCIS use to gauge how much progress the agency is, or is not, making on reducing our backlog and overall case processing times.”

What are the cycle time goals for particular USCIS forms?

– Two weeks: I-129 and I-140 (with premium processing);

– Two months: I-129 (without premium processing);

– Three months: I-765, I-131 Advance Parole, I-539, I-824;

– Six months: N-400, N-600, N-600K, I-485, I-140 (without premium processing), I-130 Immediate Relative, I-129F Fiancé(e), I-290B, I-360, I-102, I-526, I-600, I-600A, I-600K, I-730, I-800, I-800A, I-90, I-821D Renewals.”

Critics of USCIS will likely consider these goals aspirational. However, there is a benefit for a federal agency to establish benchmarks since it can help focus decision-making. “As cycle times improve, processing times will follow, and applicants and petitioners will receive decisions on their cases more quickly,” according to the agency. “USCIS will increase capacity, improve technology, and expand staffing to achieve these new goals by the end of FY 2023.”

Temporary Final Rule on EADs: USCIS stated that it “continues to make progress toward a temporary final rulecurrently named ‘Temporary Increase of the Automatic Extension Period of Employment Authorization and Documentation for Certain Renewal Applicants.’” Depending on the substance, the rule could provide an option for individuals who risk losing their jobs due to USCIS processing delays.

“I don’t think anyone has seen the text, but from the title, I think they must be extending out the automatic 180-day extension that you get with a timely filed renewal for some EAD categories,” said Kevin Miner, “This would be helpful, especially for adjustment of status EADs. We have had many cases where the EAD renewal is filed as far in advance for the expiration as USCIS allows (6 months), but with processing times taking 13 or 14 months in some cases, the individual still ends up with a gap in work authorization. 

“By extending out the auto-extension period to say, 240 days like they do for H-1Bs, L-1s, and other nonimmigrant [temporary visa] categories, that would provide a better cushion and avoid those gaps. It would also likely significantly reduce the number of EAD expedite requests the agency has to handle, which would allow them to better allocate resources internally.”

Nothing precludes USCIS from proposing broader solutions, including changes in the process, that would limit the need for individuals to file—and the agency to process—requests for employment authorization. Under a recent settlement, USCIS agreed to “issue policy guidance that states that L-2 spouses are employment authorized incident to status.” (That means no initial filing requesting employment authorization would be necessary.) There may be statutory differences with the spouses of L-1 visa holders. However, USCIS could consider a range of regulatory or administrative actions in other categories. Miner points out a regulation will not be quick. On the other hand, USCIS has proposed a potential three-year phase-in for the premium processing rule.

The Trump administration enacted many policies designed to make it more difficult to gain approvals in various immigration categories, made the process more cumbersome and, as a result, cases piled up and wait times increased. During the Trump administration, the number of pending cases at USCIS increased by 37%, from 4.7 million to 6.4 million, between the first quarters of FY 2017 and FY 2021, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis, and the trend has continued.

USCIS Director Ur Jaddou started her job less than 8 months ago and inherited what observers consider a train wreck years in the making. Ultimately, Jaddou and USCIS will be judged by their ability to reduce wait times for immigration benefits. Expanding premium processing, allowing more leeway on employment authorization renewals and establishing clear targets to reduce processing times represent steps in the right direction.

Source: USCIS Issues Immigration Rule To Expand Premium Processing

Biden Administration Unveils Strategy to Remove Obstacles to US Citizenship – Boundless

Of note the more pro-active outreach:

The Biden administration unveiled Friday a comprehensive strategy involving numerous government agencies to remove obstacles facing immigrants eligible for U.S. citizenship.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said in a statement that the agency “is committed to empowering immigrants to pursue citizenship and the rights and opportunities available to them as they embark on their journey.”

The government laid out its plans to reduce barriers to naturalization, including:

  1. Outreach: Create a working group with various government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as state and local governments, to notify immigrants when they’re eligible to apply for citizenship.
  2. Partnerships: Expand national, regional, and local partnerships to raise awareness around naturalization. Examples of the types of partnerships include teaming up with the United States Postal Service (USPS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to provide citizenship information at post offices and ports of entry.
  3. Citizenship Education: Relaunch and expand a citizenship awareness and education campaign. Initiatives include creating new multilingual learning materials, increasing outreach to military families and rural communities, and posting more social media content about citizenship-related events, the application process, and study materials.

USCIS said it also plans to collect information on the nationality, age, sex, and zip codes of immigrants eligible for naturalization, and provide this anonymous data to local governments and community organizations seeking to improve outreach to those eligible for citizenship.

Given the massive naturalization interview and oath backlogs, USCIS said it would also continue searching for solutions to speed up the process.

“As the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will seek to responsibly hold in-person events and to use the creative solutions we have already been employing to connect with communities using technology,” said the agency.

Source: Biden Administration Unveils Strategy to Remove Obstacles to US Citizenship – Boundless

Report: full report

USCIS: Citizenship agency eyes improved service without plan to pay

Canada also needs to modernize its citizenship program (https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/april-2021/amid-languishing-numbers-canadas-citizenship-process-needs-to-be-modernized/), including full integration into the GCMS modernization project):

Less than a year after being on the verge of furloughing about 70% of employees to plug a funding shortfall, the U.S. agency that grants citizenship, green cards and temporary visas wants to improve service without a detailed plan to pay for it, including granting waivers for those who can’t afford to pay fees, according to a proposal obtained by The Associated Press.

The Homeland Security Department sent its 14-page plan to enhance procedures for becoming a naturalized citizen to the White House for approval on April 21, It involves U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of Homeland Security and has been operating entirely on fees, without funding from Congress.

The plan describes short- and long-term changes that reflect “a realistic assessment of our aspirations and limitations,” including more video instead of in-person interviews with applicants, authorizing employees to administer citizenship oaths instead of having to rely on federal judges, and promoting online filing to reduce processing times.

Homeland Security says it can all be done without the approval of Congress, where consensus on immigration has proven elusive for years.

Taken together, the changes mark a complete break from the Trump administration, when the agency focused on combatting fraud and adjusted to shrinking immigration benefits, such as ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to shield young people from deportation.

The plan also seeks to give potential U.S. citizens the benefit of the doubt. For instance, it specifies that an immigrant who mistakenly registers to vote in U.S. elections before becoming a citizen won’t be punished. Doing so now can lead to deportation or criminal charges, likely ending a person’s chance for citizenship.

The issue has been in the spotlight amid a recent surge in automatic voter registration and former President Donald Trump’s repeated unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. Last year, Illinois’ automatic voter registration program mistakenly registered hundreds of people who said they weren’t U.S. citizens. At least one voted.

The document that aims to improve the citizenship process is designed to “encourage full participation in our civic life and democracy” and to deliver services effectively and efficiently.

It doesn’t provide cost estimates for any of the proposed changes, though some measures appear designed to save money as well as achieve efficiencies. It also acknowledges success depends on long-term financial stability, which includes asking Congress for money.

Under the plan, the agency would continue subsidizing the costs of becoming a citizen to make sure the process is available to as many people as possible. Guidelines on fee waivers would be consistent and transparent, it said.

The administration “recognizes that the cost of fees can be a barrier to certain individuals filing for naturalization and is committed to providing affordable naturalizations,” the document reads. “This will mean that other fee-paying applicants and petitioners will continue to subsidize this policy decision to ensure full cost recovery.”

The White House and Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Fiscal challenges came to a head last summer when the agency threatened more than 13,000 furloughs to tackle a projected $1.26 billion shortfall. But a few tense months later, it said it didn’t need the money after all and would end the year with a surplus. The agency’s then-acting director, Joseph Edlow, said application fees rebounded more than expected as offices reopened from coronavirus shutdowns and contracts were reviewed for cost savings.

The anticipated shortfall first surfaced in November 2019, when the agency proposed major fee increases — well before COVID-19 threatened finances.

The budget whiplash raised doubts about how the agency’s finances deteriorated so rapidly then suddenly recovered. Ur Jaddou, who was nominated by President Joe Biden in April to lead the agency, was among those with questions.

Jaddou, who served as the agency’s chief counsel under President Barack Obama, said in October that the agency needed a financial audit. She questioned some changes under the Trump administration, including justification for a major expansion of an anti-fraud unit and a requirement, since abandoned by Biden, to reject applications that left any spaces blank.

“It really is a bunch of bureaucratic red tape,” she said when discussing the agency’s financial woes.

Fees were set to increase by an average of 20% last October but a federal judge blocked them days before they were to take effect. The fee to become a naturalized citizen was set to jump to $1,170 from $640. Fee waivers were to be largely eliminated for people who could not afford to apply.

Other Trump-era fee changes that were stopped included a first-ever charge to apply for asylum of $50. Asylum-seekers would also have to pay $550 if they sought work authorization and $30 for collecting biometrics.

The wait to process a citizenship application grew to more than a year by the end of Trump’s presidency from less than eight months four years earlier.

The cost of becoming a U.S. citizen just went up drastically. And asylum is no longer free

The final increases, with the citizenship fees approaching UK rates:

The Trump administration announced on Friday an exorbitant increase in fees for some of the most common immigration procedures, including an 81% increase in the cost of U.S. citizenship for naturalization. It will also now charge asylum-seekers, which is an unprecedented move.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published on Friday a final rule in the Federal Register that details the new cost for dozens of immigration and naturalization applications, a further change in immigration policy to curb legal immigration of low-income foreign nationals.

The fees’ adjustment “to ensure U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recoversits costs of services,” they agency said in a press release, includes a $50 fee in the Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal. That will make the United States one of only four countries around the world that charge a fee for humanitarian protection.

The fee to apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization will increase from $640 to $1,160 if filed online, or $ 1,170 in paper filing.

Other increases will hit petitions for employment authorization — Form I-765, which will go up by 34% to $550 — and for removing conditions on permanent residenceobtained through marriage (Form I-751), which will go up by 28%, from $595 to $760.

USCIS ADJUSTS FEES FOR IMMIGRATION AND NATURALIZATION BENEFIT REQUESTS

The immigration agency cited the increase in operating costs and the decrease in its income to cover expenses as a reason to raise the fees.

According to the statement, the Department of Homeland Security agency adjusted the rates by a weighted average increase of 20% to recover its operating costs and thus avoid a funding shortfall estimated at $1 billion annually.

“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures and make adjustments based on that analysis,” said Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, in a press release. “These overdue adjustments in fees are necessary to efficiently and fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, secure the homeland and protect Americans.”

USCIS is facing a crippling budget shortfall and has told Congress it urgently needs $1.2 billion in emergency funding due to a drastic decline in green card and other visa applications. Most services were halted on March 18 due to the coronavirus pandemic and the agency resumed in-person services on June 4.

As services have been restored, the DHS agency has reduced the number of appointments and interviews to ensure social distancing rules.

COST HIKES FOR KEY IMMIGRATION PROCESSES

The most drastic rate increase affect work visas, citizenship, permanent legal residence and documents for families or crime victims.

“Fee waivers are almost entirely eliminated, pricing out lower-income applicants for citizenship and various humanitarian protections,” wrote Doug Rand, co-founder of Boundless Immigration, in his Twitter feed.

The regulation, “will increase fees across the board and eliminate most fee waivers, effectively putting a wealth test on immigrant and refugee communities who want to apply,” said Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, in a press release.

Some of the other immigration forms affected by the rate increase are:

I-131A, Application for Travel Document (Carrier Documentation)

Current fee: $575. Final Fee: $1,110. Percentage change: 76%.

I-881, Application for Suspension of Deportation

Current fee: $285. Final Fee: $1,810. Percentage change: 535%.

I-539, Application To Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status

Current fee: $370. Final Fee: $400 ($390 for online filing). Percentage change: 8% (5%).

I-929, Petition for Qualifying Family Member of a U-1 Nonimmigrant (Victims of Criminal Activity)

Current fee: $230. Final Fee: $1,485. Percentage change: 546%.

N-470, Application to Preserve Residence for Naturalization Purposes

Current fee: $355. Final Fee: $1,585. Percentage change: 346%.

“This final rule also encourages online filing by providing a $10 reduction in the fee for applicants who submit forms online,” said USCIS.

Source: The cost of becoming a U.S. citizen just went up drastically. And asylum is no longer free

China’s Muslim Uighurs Are Stuck in U.S. Immigration Limbo

Yet another consequence of Trump administration immigration policies and practices:

Kalbinur Awut came to the U.S. in 2015 from China’s far west for graduate study. Soon after arriving at the University of Rhode Island, she applied for political asylum. A member of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, she had been harassed in China for wearing headscarves and was briefly detained after she applied to study overseas.

When she signed into a website run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services this month to check her status, the same old message greeted her, with her wait time the only update: “Your case has been pending with USCIS for 1,796 days, not including delays,” it said.

China’s treatment of Uighurs exploded into the American consciousness around two years ago with reports that China was rounding up around a million Uighurs in what appeared to be concentration camps in the western region of Xinjiang.

Roughly around the same time, changes in U.S. asylum policies slowed the process for many of those claiming risk in their home countries. As a result, while the Trump administration is targeting China with various Xinjiang-related sanctions, hundreds of Uighurs like Ms. Awut are in U.S. immigration limbo with asylum bids hung up for years.

Applicants say that they are grateful the U.S. lets them work while awaiting a decision, but that their options are limited as prospective employers or landlords can be wary about their legal status. Lawyer charges and fees to renew work permits and temporary legal documents like driver’s licenses are a constant worry. Their quasi-legal status also leaves them at risk of deportation.

USCIS said its backlog for those seeking asylum, which provides a path to permanent residence and citizenship, was about 340,000 as of last September, the latest figures available, which equates to several years worth of cases. A few hundred Uighurs are in that queue, among Syrians fleeing civil war, Rohingya forced out of Myanmar and Hondurans fearing gang violence, according to lawyers.

Lawyers say the holdup is most acute in USCIS’s center in Arlington, Va., near where the majority of Uighurs in the U.S. have settled. Rights groups put the number of Uighurs in the country at less than 8,000.

Many Uighurs whose applications have been held up came to the U.S. to study or for work or holiday, then filed for asylum as Chinese authorities tightened control in Xinjiang and it became clear that having international ties was cause enough to get locked up.

Among those in limbo is Tahir Hamut, a poet and filmmaker who applied in late 2017 and has spoken to The Wall Street Journal about the detention camps and his family’s harrowing escape from China. Shortly after one article was published, Mr. Hamut said, his younger brother disappeared in Xinjiang and two female relatives got called in for police interrogation.

“Since the situation in our homeland is so hard right now, the Uighur people in the United States are facing a huge psychological stress,” he said by telephone from Fairfax, Va., as his 18-year-old daughter Asena translated. Mr. Hamut said he used an appearance two years ago at a religious-freedom event chaired by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to request faster application processing, but hasn’t seen results.

His daughter said the family’s uncertain legal status makes her ineligible to join the U.S. Air Force, despite spending two years in a high-school Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. She is giving up hopes of affording her dream schools, George Mason University or Virginia Tech.

“I’m thinking of changing my plans, going to a community college,” she said.

President Trump last month signed a law aiming to punish top Chinese policy makers and companies associated with repression of Islamic minority groups, including Uighurs. The State Department has targeted Chinese officials, including Chen Quanguo, China’s top appointee to Xinjiang and a member of the Communisty Party’s 25-member Politburo.

The U.S. has also blocked certain imports from Xinjiang and placed goods on watch that might be produced with forced labor.

Uighurs overseas applaud such actions as long overdue. But unprecedented political recognition has done little to get asylum applicants out of their immigration logjam.

The Trump administration has rarely made exceptions for applicants from any particular country, including Cubans or Venezuelans, whose governments are the target of tough U.S. policies. U.S. congressional efforts to welcome some Hong Kong residents after China enacted a national-security law in the territory would run on a separate track from the asylum process.

Beijing has defended stepped-up policing and what it calls vocational training centers in Xinjiang as necessary to combat extremism. It denounces sanctions by the U.S. as interference in China’s domestic affairs.

Lawyers say Uighurs have traditionally had very little problem winning asylum in the U.S. “Uighur cases have an astonishingly high approval rate,” said Rockville, Md., lawyer Brian Mezger. Nearly 100% of the Uighurs he has represented over more than two decades have obtained asylum.

In a pivotal change to the asylum system, U.S. immigration authorities in early 2018 adopted a type of last-in, first-out system to prioritize interviews with the newest applicants. The idea was to weed out those the administration said had in past years mainly sought ways to work legally in the U.S. and didn’t have a clear claim to asylum.

The effect was to push existing applicants to the back of the line. A 32-year-old Uighur woman in Boston said she and her husband have been waiting for an interview since 2014—and have had a son in the meantime—while an application by her younger sister after the policy changed in 2018 was approved in three months.

USCIS said that its broader efforts to control frivolous and fraudulent asylum claims are paying dividends and that the most recent numbers show its backlog is growing less quickly.

Like other Uighurs interviewed, the woman in Boston said she and her sister didn’t come to the U.S. intending to stay but both grew anxious as friends and family members back in China were increasingly harassed and sometimes detained, making their own returns to China all but impossible. “We do not have a country, and our life is jeopardized if we go back,” she said, fearing problems for her parents in Xinjiang if she speaks out.

Ms. Awut, who lost teaching jobs during the pandemic, is for now living with her son at the home of a friend near San Francisco. She said Chinese police sometimes attempt to question her via the social-messaging platform WeChat but that she has been unable to connect with her mother, brother or sister since 2016.

“I don’t know if they are alive,” she said.

Source: China’s Muslim Uighurs Are Stuck in U.S. Immigration Limbo

MPI Report: A Rockier Road to U.S. Citizenship? Findings of a Survey on Changing Naturalization Procedures

Another good and informative report by MPI:

The 9 million immigrants who are eligible for U.S. citizenship face growing obstacles to naturalization as the result of changed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adjudications standards and a recasting of the agency’s mission to prioritize fraud detection over customer service, a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of a survey of 110 naturalization assistance providers across the United States finds.

While USCIS continues to approve the vast majority of naturalization applications it receives, the agency took nearly twice as long to process the average case in fiscal 2019 than was the case three years earlier, with case backlogs increasing as applications have been kicked back more frequently with requests for more information and English and civics tests have been administered more strictly. This increased vetting of applications was happening before a trio of new developments could significantly reduce citizenship acquisition for qualified immigrants in the months and years ahead:

  • COVID-19-related delays that shut down USCIS in-person interviews for three months, delaying the citizenship oath-taking for more than 100,000 would-be Americans,
  • the imminent furlough of two-thirds of the agency’s staff in early August unless Congress provides emergency funding to address a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, and
  • a citizenship fee increase from $640 to up to $1,170 that is scheduled to go into effect in September, alongside a restriction in eligibility for fee waivers for low-income applicants.

“The seeds of the current budget crisis were sown before the pandemic when USCIS put more intensive vetting and fraud detection in place, along with other policies that have reduced application levels,” said Randy Capps, who is director for research for U.S. programs at MPI. “Now the pandemic and anticipated furlough threaten to further slow application processing at the same time that the fee is set to increase substantially, creating much higher hurdles and potentially deterring people from applying for citizenship.”

In its latest report, MPI examines the effects of changing USCIS standards and procedures during the Trump administration, drawing from a survey of 110 naturalization assistance providers in 34 metro areas administered by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) between March – September 2019. These groups are among more than 200 providers in the ILRC’s New Americans Campaign, which has assisted more than 470,000 people in completing their citizenship applications.

The report, A Rockier Road to U.S. Citizenship? Findings of a Survey on Changing Naturalization Procedures, finds:

  • About one-quarter of survey respondents reported their clients missed interviews when USCIS sent notices to incorrect addresses, sent them too late or sent them to the attorney, not the applicant.
  • More than one-third reported USCIS more often issued requests for evidence (RFEs) to support applications, especially for documents related to tax compliance and income, continuous residency and physical presence, marriage and child support, and criminal history, with one-quarter reporting substantially more documents being required.
  • USCIS officers asked detailed questions not directly related to citizenship eligibility, and administered the English and civics tests differently, often more strictly, according to 10 percent of respondents.

Most of these changes were common among the 52 USCIS offices across the country covered by the survey, suggesting these shifts in adjudication practice likely represent changes in USCIS policy or broad-based agency culture, rather than being limited to individual office or adjudicator practices.

The report underscores the importance of oversight of naturalization procedures to ensure that the country reserves citizenship for those who fully meet its requirements and preserves the lawful claims of legal permanent residents to the full civic and political rights that citizenship brings. Yet even as USCIS has shifted its mission to increased vetting and fraud detection, studies have shown little to no evidence of naturalization fraud.

“USCIS’ stricter adjudicating processes have accomplished nothing aside from increasing the time and costs associated with completing the naturalization process,” said Eric Cohen, executive director of the ILRC. “Increased obstacles to citizenship prevent qualified U.S. residents from voting, running for public office, traveling without visas to many other countries, sponsoring family for immigration and many other benefits. They have no demonstrated impact on fraud prevention, which is nearly non-existent to begin with.”

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/changing-uscis-naturalization-procedures.

USA: The Next Harmful Immigration Move Against International Students

Significant short and longer term impact. Haven’t seen data on Canadian visa overstays for international students but likely less given Canadian Experience Class pathway to permanent residence:

The next Trump administration action taken against high-skilled foreign nationals may be to limit the length of stay for international students after they are admitted to the United States. This would be done through a new rule eliminating “duration of status,” which now allows a student, once admitted to America, to continue his or her studies until completion, without requiring additional approvals.

The vehicle for this new restriction would be a new regulation to establish a “maximum period of authorized stay for students.” The targeted date for publishing the proposed rule is February 2020.

Replacing the current “duration of status” for international students with a “maximum period of authorized stay” would increase uncertainty for students. It would require them to gain new approvals at each stage of their studies in the United States, such as a transition from an undergraduate to a graduate-level program. New approvals also would be needed if academic programs take longer than anticipated.

In interviews, educators estimate extra costs incurred by international students could be $1,500 or more per extension. Moreover, students would face the prospect of USCIS adjudicators denying student extension requests, much like many H-1B visa holders experience today when trying to extend their status and are forced to leave the country. The denial rate was 24% for H-1B petitions for new employment and 12% for continuing employment through the first three quarters of FY 2019, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis.

Educators and analysts blame higher costs in the United States and restrictive Trump administration immigration policies for recent declines in international student enrollment. The new policy would raise costs higher for students and be much more restrictive than the status quo.

Given the significant delays in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processing under its current workload, the agency is unlikely to approve applications in time for many students. At the Texas Service Center, as of February 4, 2020, the processing time was 9 to 11 and a half months for an “Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status (I-539).” That means a student would need to file a year in advance for an extension, which likely would not even be permitted by USCIS.

What happens if a student files a timely application but USCIS fails to approve it in time? The student would be in jeopardy unless he or she leaves the country, according to USCIS.

The agency includes the following on a list of Q&As for an extension of stay: “What if I file for an extension of stay on time but USCIS doesn’t make a decision before my I–94 expires? Your lawful nonimmigrant status ends, and you are out of status, when your Form I-94 expires, even if you have timely applied to extend your nonimmigrant status . . . DHS [Department of Homeland Security] may bring a removal proceeding against you, even if you have an application for extension of status pending.”

The administration has provided little justification for this significant change in policy, which was first placed on the regulatory agenda in October 2018. The “Statement of Need” for the rule to end duration of status reads: “The failure to provide certain categories of nonimmigrants with specific dates for their authorized periods of stay can cause confusion over how long they may lawfully remain in the United States and has complicated the efforts to reduce overstay rates for nonimmigrant students. The clarity created by date-certain admissions will help reduce the overstay rate.”

The only evidence presented on international student overstay rates remains a series of flawed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports – and even those reports show student overstay rates have dropped significantly.

As discussed previously, Department of Homeland Security reports include as “overstays” people who did not necessarily overstay a visa, but individuals who DHS could not confirm had departed the United States. The distinction is important. “The DHS figures represent actual overstays plus arrivals whose departure could not be verified,” writes Robert Warren, a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Migration Studies in an analysis.

Attorney Paul Virtue, a former top official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told me in an interview: “The DHS report on overstays is dependent on the accuracy of information in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) and the agency’s ability to match entry and exit information, especially for students who, for example, may have departed through a land port of entry or have had a change of status that was not updated in SEVIS . . . there is still too much guesswork built into the DHS assumptions concerning the number of overstays among the student and exchange visitor populations.” (Emphasis added.)

Recent DHS reports show the purported overstay rate for F-1 students declined by 42% between FY 2016 and FY 2018, falling from 6.19% in FY 2016 to 3.59% in FY 2018. Despite this, DHS has not backed away from the potential rule to abolish duration of status and establish a maximum period of authorized stay for F-1 students.

Many in the international education community believe the “overstay” argument is being used to justify the policy rather than the actual impetus for eliminating duration of status. The motivation, many suspect, is to limit or discourage more international students from coming to the United States, as evidenced by a series of policies the administration has put forward to restrict international students and employment-based immigration.

New enrollment of international students at U.S. universities declined by more than 10% between the 2015-16 and 2018-2019 academic years. At the same time, in Australia the enrollment of international students in higher education increased by 47% between 2015 and 2018, according to Australian government data.

In Canada, the number of Indian international students rose from 76,075 in 2016 to 172,625 in 2018, an increase of 127%, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Canada makes it easy for international students to transition to work after graduation, which creates a path to permanent residence, notes Toronto-based attorney Peter Rekai. The number of Indians obtaining permanent residence in Canada doubled between 2016 and 2019.

At a time when other countries are attracting more students, increasing costs and adding new layers of uncertainty will likely discourage international students from coming to the United States.

Source: The Next Harmful Immigration Move Against International Students

Trump wants to nearly double US citizenship application fees

Yet another deliberate barrier to citizenship. Hard to see how the processing costs could be that high (over twice Canada’s, which, of course, the re-elected Liberal government has promised to eliminate):

The Trump administration is considering raising the cost of U.S. citizenship applications, according to a Department of Homeland Security rule filed on Friday.

The fee for the U.S. citizenship application would increase to $1,170 – from $640, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

A number of other cost increases were proposed, as well as the addition of a $50 fee for asylum applications.

According to the document, a biennial fee review determined that current fees “do not recover the full costs of providing adjudication and naturalization services” at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Without an increase in funding, the government predicts the agency would experience an average annual shortfall of $1.2 billion.

The Department of Homeland Security has proposed adjusting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration fees “by a weighted average increase of 21 percent,” in addition to adding fees for some benefit requests. U.S. immigration services is primarily funded by fees charged to applicants and petitioners.

Written comments must be submitted within 30 days from the date the rule is published in the federal register, which will be on Thursday.

The last time the fee schedule was adjusted was at the end of 2016.

Source: Trump wants to nearly double US citizenship application fees