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

USCIS’s Cuccinelli Boasts Of Increasing Immigration Bureaucracy

Not something to boast about, normally:

In a new press release, USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli boasted that the Trump administration has increased red tape and bureaucracy for U.S. companies. It’s the latest example of administration officials lauding efforts to make it more difficult for employers to obtain what economists often consider to be a company’s most valuable resource – talent.

Since 2017, Trump administration policies have focused on restricting the entry of immigrants and foreign nationals, including scientists and engineers. “Denial rates for new H-1B petitions have increased significantly, rising from 6% in FY 2015 to 32% in the first quarter of FY 2019,” according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis.

In addition, expensive and time-consuming Requests for Evidence (RFEs) reached an unprecedented level of 60% in the FY 2019 first quarter. The percentage of completed H-1B cases with a Request for Evidence has doubled between FY 2016 and FY 2019. Many companies have resorted to lawsuits in federal court against USCIS to gain approvals for employees they have identified as valuable.

However, Ken Cuccinelli and USCIS describe the increased bureaucracy facing businesses in positive terms and the fulfillment of a mission. “Consistent with President Trump’s call for enhanced vetting, USCIS plays a key role in safeguarding our nation’s immigration system and making sure that only those who are eligible for a benefit receive it,” according to the October 16, 2019, press release. “USCIS is vigorous in its efforts to detect and deter immigration fraud, using a variety of vetting and screening processes to confirm an applicant’s identity and eligibility. The agency also conducts site visits, interviews applicants, and requests evidence for benefits that offer individuals status in the United States.”

The meaning of the bureaucratic language used by USCIS is clear: USCIS has made it more difficult for employers to gain approval for high-skilled foreign nationals and others.

Here are examples of increased bureaucracy and added burdens on companies hiring foreign-born scientists and engineers:

•          Government documents reveal USCIS adjudicators were directed to restrict approvals of H-1B petitions without the legal or regulatory authority to justify those decisions. The documents became public following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

•          A USCIS internal document – “H-1B RFE Standards” – encouraged adjudicators to demand more information of employers, leading to such requests being made in 40% to 60% of H-1B cases.

•          Another USCIS document changed the standard for what qualifies as a “specialty occupation” for an H-1B visa holder – without any change in the law or regulation. While initially used to deny H-1B status to computer programmers, this analysis explains that the USCIS document states the new USCIS policy is “Applicable to Many Occupations.”

•          USCIS adjudicators have taken the unusual step of approving H-1B status for periods of very short duration. In an ongoing court case, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer cited the plaintiff’s example of USCIS granting one applicant an H-1B approval valid for only a single day – from February 1 to February 2, 2019. (See USCIS decision here.) Such actions force businesses to waste time and money filing repeatedly for the same employees.

•          A Trump administration decision to compel employment-based green card applicants to sit for in-person interviews contributed to “increased delays in the adjudication of employment-based benefits [that] undermined the ability of U.S. companies to hire and retain essential workers,” according to an American Immigration Lawyers Association report. It also caused increased backlogs in other types of applications.

•          USCIS now often requires – without a new law or regulation – a company to list every contract on which an H-1B visa holder will work during a three-year period to prove a “valid employer-employee relationship.” This was not done previously, and companies consider it unduly burdensome and out of touch with how businesses operate in a modern economy. The policy is a source of litigation.

•          USCIS also issued a memo instructing adjudicators to no longer defer to prior determinations when adjudicating extension applications for existing H-1B visa holders. That policy change has contributed to a significant increase in denials and Request for Evidence for continuing employment for H-1B petitions, resulting in a three-fold increase in the denial rate for companies trying to retain current H-1B employees between FY 2016 and FY 2019. Employees who spent years working in the United States have been forced to leave the country after being denied H-1B extensions.

“By increasing the many hoops and hurdles that employers and foreign-born workers must negotiate to work in the United States, USCIS is making it harder for American companies to recruit and retain global talent,” said attorney Vic Goel, managing partner of Goel & Anderson, in an interview. “It is doing this through trumped-up claims of increased workload and fraud referrals, when many of those challenges are the result of its own efforts to create more work for itself and further grow the immigration bureaucracy.”

The available U.S. domestic talent pool is limited in many key fields. Approximately 80% of full-time graduate students at U.S. universities in computer science and electrical engineering are international students who need a visa to work long-term in the United States.

Research by Britta Glennon, an assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, found the types of government restrictions applauded by the acting director of USCIS are not good for America. Glennon found H-1B visa restrictions carry the unintended consequence of pushing jobs outside the United States and lead to less innovation in America. “In short, restrictive H-1B policies could not only be exporting more jobs and businesses to countries like Canada, but they also could be making the U.S.’s innovative capacity fall behind,” concluded Glennon.

When USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli ran for and held public office in Virginia, he had the support of the Tea Party and advocated against overreaching federal bureaucracy, including by filing a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency. As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a-changin.’”

Source: USCIS’s Cuccinelli Boasts Of Increasing Immigration Bureaucracy

Immigration Officials Want To Change References Of “Foreign National” To “Alien” In A Policy Manual

Not an innocent change:

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officials are planning to change all references of the term “foreign national” to “alien” in the agency’s policy manual, according to a Department of Homeland Security official with knowledge of the plans — a move that will upset immigration advocates who have long said the word is offensive and unnecessary.

While the term “alien” is found within US Code and is regularly referenced in the immigration system and in court rulings, the word has, in recent years, been wiped from the California Labor Code and the Library of Congress after advocacy efforts.

USCIS, however, is looking to proactively insert more references to the term into its policy manual, an online collection of its immigration policies, by replacing all references of “foreign national” to “alien” to describe those who are not US citizens. The policy manual posted online features more than 800 references to the term “foreign national” and already features more than 100 references to aliens.

A spokesperson for USCIS defended the change, saying that the agency “proposes to use the legal term in the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

“It is important that our agency, which administers our nation’s lawful immigration system, align our internal materials with the INA,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Under the INA, the term ‘alien’ means ‘any person not a citizen or national of the United States.'”

The agency has long been known as focused on providing services to immigrants, evaluating visa, work authorization, and naturalization applications. Under the Trump administration, it has made a restrictive turn, focusing more on enforcement, former officials say. In 2018, the agency removed the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

“Like the decision to remove the phrase ‘nation of immigrants’ from USCIS’s motto, this is yet another step in the administration’s effort to make our legal immigration system unfriendly and inaccessible,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council. “At a time when USCIS faces historic and still-growing backlogs, it’s disturbing that the agency is using its limited resources to carry out what appears to be an anti-immigrant messaging campaign.”

The planned work comes as USCIS deals with crushing backlogs of immigration benefits cases. Average case processing times have jumped 46% from the 2016 fiscal year to the 2018 fiscal year. The average processing time has gone up from just over six months to more than nine months in that same time period, according to data compiled by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Ur Jaddou, the former chief counsel for USCIS, said the effort to replace the words will be time-consuming.

“Lawyers should certainly review it to make sure it is accurate. That will take time and resources,” she said.

Since he began as acting director, Ken Cuccinelli has pushed policies that cut back the time immigrants have to consult with attorneys before their initial asylum interviews and implored asylum officers to be stricter in interviews.

He has maintained an active Twitter feed where he has attacked the asylum officers’ union for criticizing a policy that forces immigrants to remain in Mexico, advertised his TV appearances, and repeatedly rebuked local jurisdictions for policies that limit their cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In recent weeks, he requested the ability to publicize the personal information of refugees and asylees who were accused of crimes.

As a Virginia lawmaker in 2008, Cuccinelli sponsored a resolution calling for a rewrite of the Constitution to deny citizenship to Americans who were born to immigrants who crossed the border without authorization.

“This sounds like something utterly unnecessary and potentially offensive, and the only silver lining is maybe this waste of time and resources will slow down more substantive adverse policies that they no doubt have in store as well,” said Doug Rand, a former immigration official under the Obama administration.

Jaddou said the push to the term “alien” was unfortunate.

“Taking the time to change it back — when I haven’t heard that the use of the less offensive term has created issues — makes me wonder about the actual motive to return to a term that many find offensive,” she said.

Source: Immigration Officials Want To Change References Of “Foreign National” To “Alien” In A Policy Manual

A big player in becoming a US citizen? Your ZIP code.

Some interesting analysis of regional discrepancies in citizenship processing time. Haven’t seen comparable data for Canada and not sure whether IRCC’s system could generate the data.

The chart on the effect of steep increases in fees is of interest (in Canada, somewhat camouflaged by the effects of longer residency and testing of 55-64 year olds, reversed in October 2017, with full year 2019 data, when available, will separate out those effects):

The ties are straightened, hair combed, and jewelry gleaming here, and the line to get into the federal courthouse is spilling outside into a chilly morning.

Get here 30 minutes early, someone says; they weren’t kidding. Two U.S. airmen from nearby Goodfellow Air Force Base, here to sing patriotic songs, joke about being late for their own gig.

It’s a long drive from here to San Antonio – 220 miles, about the same as from New York to Washington. But for the 33 newly minted American citizens, all the round trips over the past year feel more than worth it.

Milagros Carnes, from the Philippines, says her American daughter worried she (Milagros) would be deported if she didn’t become a citizen. Alejandro Fraire has an American wife and three American children, and his green card was close to expiring. For both of them, naturalizing just made sense.

“It’s a hard and long process, but it’s worth it,” says Mr. Fraire, a Mexican national who has lived in the United States for two decades.

Barriers to becoming a U.S. citizen can vary significantly depending on where in the country a person lives, according to a recent report from Boundless, a Seattle-based startup that helps families navigate the immigration system.

Analyzing data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the report used processing times, backlog numbers, and distances to agency field offices to rank the best and worst metro areas for becoming a citizen.

The report doesn’t explore why these geographic disparities may exist, and it includes some red herrings, according to experts. Austin, Texas, for example, is ranked as the hardest city in which to become a citizen in large part because applicants have to report to a USCIS office in Houston, three hours away. But the report also notes broader trends in how barriers to American citizenship have gotten steeper over time.

The volume of citizenship applications fluctuates from year to year, but the past two years have seen a surge in applications. There hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the processing rate, experts say, exacerbating a backlog that had already doubled during the Obama administration. The success of field offices in clearing this backlog differs. In Providence, Rhode Island, 81 percent of those who applied in the past year or had applications pending have been processed, while in Miami and Dallas the number is only 30 percent, Boundless found.

SOURCE: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
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“Despite a record and unprecedented application surge workload, USCIS is completing more citizenship applications, more efficiently and effectively—outperforming itself as an agency. USCIS strives to adjudicate all applications, petitions, and requests as effectively and efficiently as possible in accordance with all applicable laws, policies, and regulations,” said USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins in a statement.

Staffing levels and office cultures and personalities might affect approval rates and backlog sizes at particular offices. Different field offices can also vary on discretionary aspects of the naturalization process, such as an officer determining if someone is of “good moral character” or if the person’s ability with English is good enough. Having a criminal history, tax debts, or a spotty record of making child support payments are some indications of character issues that can be interpreted differently depending on the USCIS office or officer.

“The only time I’ve seen variation is when there is discretion on an issue of character,” says Marisol Perez, an immigration attorney in San Antonio.

“I think all the offices follow the law,” she adds. “It’s case by case and officer by officer with regard to [who they say] deserves favorable discretion.”

As part of its efforts to continue eliminating the backlog, Ms. Collins added, “USCIS is in the process of realigning our regional, district and field offices to streamline our management structures, balance resources, and improve overall mission performance and service delivery.”

The realignment, effective October 2019, will realign the 88 existing field offices under 16 district offices (instead of the current 24) in order to evenly distribute workloads and provide more consistent processing times. The last such realignment occurred in 2006.

The Trump administration has increased the burden on USCIS offices. In 2017 the administration moved to expand in-person interview requirements for certain permanent residency applications and a year later expanded the interview requirement for married couples applying for a green card. While these changes didn’t affect the naturalization process directly, they have had an indirect impact by increasing the workload on USCIS officers, experts say.

“Placing a lot of emphasis on national security is applying more scrutiny to applications, is increasing their workload in looking at applications,” says Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, “and there are proposed changes that could increase that further.”

The administration is considering other changes for this year, including a wholesale fee review and more expansive questions and travel records for citizenship applications. The administration is also reportedly considering shuttering all 21 international USCIS offices, which could slow the processing of family visa applications, with The Washington Post reporting that officials are preparing to do it.

Perhaps the biggest effect the administration has had on the naturalization process has been through its consistent anti-immigrant tone, however.

The USCIS field office in San Antonio saw a 40 percent increase in citizenship applications last year, according to Ms. Perez. The agency changed its mission statement last year – removing the words “nation of immigrants” and adding “protecting Americans, securing the homeland” – causing clients to come to her seeking naturalization.

“They fear their status is at risk because of the tone of this administration,” she says. “These are folks who should have no reason to be worried but are worried.”

“I have faith in the system, and I have faith in USCIS,” she adds. “We have good relationships with USCIS, but that’s the tone we have out there.”

Source: A big player in becoming a US citizen? Your ZIP code.