DHS watchdog recommends steps to improve immigration benefits processing

Management shortcomings at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security Department agency responsible for administering immigration benefits, have undermined efforts to eliminate the backlog of benefit applications, according to a new report by the department's inspector general.

The report, released on Thursday by Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner, said USCIS lacked adequate baseline data to measure performance, failed to oversee or document lessons from pilot programs and other initiatives being executed by field offices, and lacked a formal agreement with the State Department to ensure timely processing of immigration benefits.

The relationship between Homeland Security and State is important because immigration benefits are conferred by USCIS based on the availability of visas issued by State. Immigration benefits include citizenship, permanent residency, family and employment-related immigration, employment authorization, international adoptions, asylum and refugee status, replacement immigration documents and foreign student authorization.

USCIS inherited a huge backlog of benefit applications -- 3.7 million -- when the functions formerly handled by the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service were transferred to the Homeland Security Department in 2003. At the time, agency officials said they would aim to reduce processing times for all applications to no more than six months.

But the agency has failed to develop adequate baseline performance measures to fully gauge its performance, the IG found. While agency officials manage workloads by considering the average cycle time of applications, the method does not pinpoint bottlenecks in the process or identify areas where improvements can be made.

"Without a baseline, USCIS risks wasting resources by implementing pilot programs and initiatives that cannot be evaluated for effectiveness in reducing processing times, thus undermining efforts to eliminate the backlog of immigration benefit applications," Skinner wrote.

In addition, the IG found that the agency has allowed field offices to independently implement new processing methods to increase productivity, but has not documented those programs to show if they achieved their goals, nor have officials systematically shared lessons learned from those initiatives.

Skinner recommended that USCIS develop baseline performance measures, improve oversight of pilot programs and other local initiatives, and implement a knowledge management mechanism for sharing lessons across the agency.

Michael Aytes, acting deputy director at USCIS, largely concurred with the IG's findings and recommendations. The only one he disputed was the suggestion to develop a memorandum of understanding with State to formalize coordination between the two agencies.

"The ongoing working sessions and continued dialogue with immigration partners at [State] is more effective than another intergovernmental MOU," Aytes wrote in a Jan. 15 response to the IG's report.

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