Immigration Reduces Big Backlog

Immigration reduces big backlog
By Stephen Dinan
September 16, 2006

The immigration service has nearly achieved its goal of processing immigration applications within an average of six months and will make an October deadline for eliminating the backlog, agency Director Emilio T. Gonzalez said yesterday.

“We're on track to get where we need to be, where we want to be,” Mr. Gonzalez, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is part of the Homeland Security Department, told reporters yesterday.

The backlog elimination has been a major test for the agency that would have to administer any future guest-worker program, and members of Congress have been watching the effort's progress closely.

However, the goal will be reached in part because the agency no longer counts cases that are outside its control, such as those awaiting an FBI check.

With the former Immigration and Naturalization Service facing a backlog in the millions, Congress demanded in 2000 that the agency reduce processing time to six months.

In 2001, President Bush and Congress approved a $500 million package to pay for reducing the backlog. That allowed USCIS to shift employees and hire temporary employees to help.

“We have every expectation we'll be able to make the president a very happy person,” Mr. Gonzalez said yesterday.

The backlog is defined as applications where the average processing time is more than six months.

In January 2004 the backlog reached 3.8 million applications. That has been whittled down to 1.1 million, and of that total just 139,000 are being delayed by factors under USCIS control.

USCIS officials call that smaller number the “net backlog,” and that is the number the agency says it will eliminate by October.

In the case of applications for naturalization, for example, the average processing time dropped from 14 months in February 2004 to five months now.

A group of House and Senate members, mostly Democrats, wrote a letter last month calling on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to rehire the temporary employees that helped reduce the backlog. The lawmakers said letting the temporary employees go would just cause the backlog to return, and said keeping the employees would make it easier to implement a guest-worker program.

“The Senate has already passed a comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform that has the support of President Bush. Passage of this legislation would make retaining these term employees particularly important, and we urge you to do so now,” the lawmakers wrote.

The term employees were capped to a maximum of four years' work.

Mr. Gonzalez said the agency has hired many of them as permanent staffers, but he said he doesn't have the authority to keep them as term employees or the money to hire them all permanently.

The director also said officials are conducting a wide-ranging review of fees that will help restructure the agency so they can hire the employees needed to process applications in a timely manner.

Some members of Congress, and the Government Accountability Office in a report last year, have questioned how USCIS defines the backlog.

But Mr. Gonzalez said it makes no sense to blame the agency for a backlog in cases where the problem lies with another agency or when the applicant hasn't submitted all the information.

Of the about 1 million backlogged applications that are outside of USCIS control, 64 percent are for applications where a visa simply isn't available yet; 17 percent are for applications that are still lacking information; and 11 percent are awaiting an FBI name check. Another 8 percent have other issues.

Mr. Gonzalez also took issue with press reports that questioned bonuses the agency plans to give to most employees this month. Some employees have said they knew of other employees who cut corners to try to meet processing goals and earn the bonuses.

But the director said the bonuses are a way to reward solid work for the backlog reduction, and said the awards — $500 for adjudicators who met production goals, were not disciplined and didn't “compromise process or program integrity” — are a small token.

“Everything we've done is what every other federal agency does here,” he said.