Mark A Ivener, A Law Corporation

USCIS Ombudsman’s 2016 Report to Congress Recommends Changes

By statute, the Ombudsman of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) submits an Annual Report to Congress by June 30 of each year. The report summarizes the most pervasive and serious problems encountered by individuals and employers applying for immigration benefits with USCIS. The Annual Report also reviews past recommendations to improve USCIS programs and services, and makes new recommendations.

USCIS Ombudsman Maria M. Odom told Congress on June 29, 2016, that USCIS “still has much work to do to resolve longstanding systemic issues that compromise efficiency, quality of adjudications, and customer service.” Noting the agency’s myriad competing priorities, she said USCIS “has made insufficient progress to address processing time delays (critically on the rise in the past 2 years); inconsistencies in adjudications across service centers; substantial failure to meet the 90-day regulatory adjudication deadline for employment authorization documents; and the continued issuance of overly burdensome and unnecessary requests for evidence.” She said she believed the agency would achieve its full potential “as a 21st century immigration agency when its customer service and adjudicatory functions are consistently prioritized, resourced, and afforded equal oversight.”

This year’s Annual Report, among other things, reviews issues involving the mobility of beneficiaries of employment-based petitions, the integrity of immigrant investor petitions, challenges faced by employees and employers in the H-2 programs, and delays in obtaining employment authorization documents.

Highlights of the report include:

Employment-based immigrant petitions. The report notes that USCIS has taken a number of steps to implement President Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Action for businesses and immigrant workers. On November 20, 2015, the agency published the draft policy memorandum, Determining Whether a New Job is in “the Same or a Similar Occupational Classification” for Purposes of Section 204(j) Job Portability; and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on December 31, 2015, to implement certain provisions of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000 (AC21). The report notes that USCIS has still not changed its position that foreign worker beneficiaries lack legal standing in the petition process despite mounting case law to the contrary. The Ombudsman said that USCIS must reconsider its position on employee standing with respect to Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, “and make a corresponding regulatory change, fully aligning its policy to the letter and spirit of AC21 to provide certain qualified employees greater employment mobility while awaiting the completion of the permanent residence process.”

EB-5 immigrant investor program. The report states that processing times for EB-5 petitions continue to degrade. Stakeholders expressed concerns about USCIS’s Investor Program Office’s (IPO) regulatory authority to administer the program; outdated regulatory requirements; program integrity in light of allegations and findings of fraud or noncompliance with other federal laws; the manipulation of Targeted Employment Areas through gerrymandering; and the inconsistent implementation of policy. The Ombudsman said her office will monitor regulatory and statutory changes to the program initiated by IPO and Congress, and will continue to address stakeholders’ concerns about the quality, consistency, and timeliness of IPO’s adjudications of EB-5 applications and petitions.

H-2 temporary workers and labor trafficking.

During the reporting period, the Ombudsman heard from workers’ rights organizations regarding the vulnerabilities and exploitation of H-2 workers sponsored by U.S. employers. The report notes that exploitation takes the form of involuntary servitude or forced labor, and can result in other workplace-based crimes. The Ombudsman participated in interagency activities to address stakeholder concerns, and worked to resolve requests for case assistance by workers encountering challenges in their pursuit of protective immigration benefits. The Ombudsman said her office will continue to explore ways USCIS can collaborate with federal agency partners to address employee exploitation and human trafficking, and will convene Department of Homeland Security (DHS) representatives to discuss how to enhance protections within DHS’s authorities.

H-2B temporary nonagricultural workers.

The report notes that stakeholders continue to assert that the H-2 program “is overly regulated and bureaucratic, causing significant challenges in hiring foreign workers” to fill temporary agricultural (H-2A) and nonagricultural (H-2B) jobs. Recent regulatory and legislative developments “have exacerbated conditions affecting both employers and employees, contributing to an overall increase, at least temporarily, in H-2B processing delays,” the report states. The Ombudsman said her office will continue to monitor stakeholder concerns about the treatment of both employers and employees in the H-2B program “to promote improved program functionality and address abuse concerns.”

Requests for evidence.

The Ombudsman monitors the rates at which requests for evidence (RFEs) are issued by the Vermont Service Center (VSC) and the California Service Center (CSC) in three high-skilled nonimmigrant visa categories: H-1B (Specialty Occupation Workers), L-1A (Intracompany Transferee Managers and Executives), and L-1B (Specialized Knowledge Workers). The FY 2015 RFE rates for these categories “continues to show disparities between the two service centers, including fluctuations in RFE issuance rates and unexplained divergences,” the report notes. The FY 2015 RFE data in other employment-based nonimmigrant visa categories “also revealed high rates of issuance in two product lines at the VSC: O-1 (Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement), reported at 49 percent, and P-1 (Internationally Recognized Athletes), which increased to 65 percent,” the report states. The Ombudsman said her office will continue to monitor and engage USCIS on issues pertaining to the quality and frequency of RFEs.

Employment authorization documents.

In 2006, 2008, and 2011, the Ombudsman issued formal recommendations suggesting ways to reduce USCIS’s processing delays for employment authorization documents (EADs). USCIS adopted some of the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the report notes, but did not agree that EAD processing was a significant issue, given the small percentage of delayed EADs. However, FY 2015 data showed that EAD adjudications after 90 days reached a “troublesome” 22 percent, or 449,307 filings. With a proposal to eliminate the 90-day processing requirement currently under consideration by the agency, timeliness “remains a real concern for EAD processing,” the report says. The Ombudsman believes the proposed regulatory changes “are not likely to result in decreased processing times, absent significant commitment from the agency to devote resources to improving processing times across the product line.” The Ombudsman said her office “continues to highlight EAD processing delays as a systemic issue, and will continue to monitor and engage the agency as long as EAD delays persist.”

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About the Author

Mark A. Ivener, A Law Corporation, a nationally recognized law firm, has successfully assisted hundreds of clients in immigration matters.