Immigration Benefits:

Improvements Needed to Address Backlogs and Ensure Quality of Adjudications

GAO-06-20: Published: Nov 21, 2005. Publicly Released: Dec 21, 2005.

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Long-standing backlogs of immigration benefit applications result in delays for immigrants, their families, and prospective employers who participate in the legal immigration process. In response to a statutory mandate to eliminate the backlog, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) set a goal of September 30, 2006, to eliminate the backlog and adjudicate all applications within 6 months. This report examines (1) the status of the backlog, (2) actions to achieve backlog elimination and prevent future backlogs, (3) the likelihood of eliminating the backlog by the deadline, and (4) USCIS's quality assurance programs to achieve consistency of decisions while eliminating its backlog.

By June 2005, USCIS estimated it had reduced its backlog from a peak of 3.8 million cases to about 1.2 million. However, this estimate is not a measure of the number of pending cases older than 6 months--the definition of backlog used by the Immigration Services and Infrastructure Improvements Act of 2000. USCIS's current data systems cannot provide precise data on the age of all application types. A proposed technology transformation offers an opportunity to develop a case management system with this capability. USCIS has reduced its backlog mainly by increasing and realigning staff. To prevent future backlogs, USCIS will rely on additional staffing reallocation and technology transformation. However, the technology plan is in the early planning stages, and USCIS has not finalized its estimated cost or identified the gains it could yield. Despite progress, it is unlikely that USCIS will completely eliminate the backlog by the 2006 deadline. While it met fiscal year 2006 targets for half of the 15 backlogged application types, USCIS may have difficulty eliminating its backlog for two complex application types that constitute nearly three-quarters of the backlog. A backlog may also remain in offices where the volume of cases exceeds adjudicator staff capacity. Other factors, such as lengthy background checks, could also hinder USCIS's ability to achieve and maintain its backlog elimination goals. USCIS officials noted that its current plan is premised on current legislation and would be affected by proposed legislative changes that could impose additional demands on the agency. Aside from regular supervisory review, USCIS operates two programs to ensure the quality of its postadjudication decisions, yet neither program provides a systematic and inclusive review of all application types. One program reviews adjudicators' compliance with standard processes for two application types, and the other evaluates compliance with standard processes and the reasonableness of decisions rendered, but only for selected applications processed in four centers.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2005, we found that the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) had developed a staffing allocation model and planned a major transformation of its information technology system to help address its backlog, but that it had not articulated potential productivity gains expected by upgrading its information technology environment to support prevention of future backlogs. As a result, we recommended that USCIS identify potential productivity gains and the potential effects of technology improvements on its staffing allocation plans. According to USCIS, the agency updated the Staffing Allocation Model (SAM) in October 2008 to identify Domestic Operations staffing requirements for FY 2009. The results obtained from the SAM 2009 model informed Domestic Operations of the need to alter hiring plans to reflect increased production. More recently, USCIS stated that it was updating the SAM model for FY 2010. According to USCIS, in each update any business process or information technology changes that may have been implemented to improve officer productivity would be captured and reflected through lower application and petition case per hour (CPH) rates. USCIS continues to take steps to update its business processes and technology that are expected to aid in resource allocation decision making. For example, according to USCIS's Solutions Architect, IBM for USCIS's Transformation Program, part of IBM's solution provides for a process simulation model that provides decision makers (supervisors, managers, headquarters) with technological tools for decision making, including resource utilization and development of staffing allocation models. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that USCIS has the information necessary to make sound strategic decisions regarding resource allocation--including staffing allocation and investment in technology transformation--and to inform Congress about expected gains from investments in technology, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to identify the potential effects of technology improvements on its staffing allocation plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is in the process of a long term program to transform from a paper-based application system to an individual account-based, electronic business processing system. One of the planned capabilities of this new system is Agency and Knowledge Management. According to USCIS' May 2010 Transformation Overview, under this capability managers will be able to see workloads and available resources to better balance the distribution of cases and assign cases based on case profiles. This capability also includes the ability for managers to balance workloads across offices. USCIS's 2007 Transformation Program Concept of Operations mentions that one of the benefits of USCIS's new businesses processes will be the ability to prevent future backlogs through efficient case management and workload tracking, a potential productivity gain. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that USCIS has the information necessary to make sound strategic decisions regarding resource allocation--including staffing allocation and investment in technology transformation--and to inform Congress about expected gains from investments in technology, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to identify potential productivity gains and their effects on preventing future backlogs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is in the process of a multi-year billion dollar program to transform from a paper-based application system to an individual account-based, electronic business processing system. USCIS has selected IBM as its Solutions Architect to aid USCIS in designing and implementing its re-engineered business processes. One of the new capabilities will be the ability to track the amount of time USCIS takes to process each application and produce management reports on the actual age of individual benefit applications. According to IBM's Technical Solution for Implementation document, production statistics will include data on case aging, that is how long each application has been pending at USCIS. According to IBM's Solution Strategy for Nonimmigrant applications, the new operating environment will give USCIS staff and management much more detailed information about each case including its "cycle time," the amount of time USCIS took to process an application and therefore allow USCIS to be able to measure percent of cases completed within established timeframes. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help determine the size of its backlog in a manner consistent with the definition in the Immigration Services and Infrastructure Improvements Act of 2000, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to develop and implement the capability to produce management reports on the actual age of individual benefit applications as soon as practicable in its long-term technology transformation process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the US Citizenship and Immigration Service's (USCIS) post adjudication quality assurance programs did not provide a comprehensive review of the agency's effort to ensure that immigration benefits are granted only to persons eligible to receive them. We recommended that USCIS develop a comprehensive quality assurance program that applies to all types of immigration benefits and that addresses adjudication processes and reasonableness of decisions. USCIS' Quality assurance programs have undergone modification to address both process and decisional compliance. In August 2006, field offices began reviewing applications for naturalization and permanent residency for decisional accuracy in addition to the established process reviews. In June 2009, USCIS' Quality Management Branch reported on a pilot test it conducted to establish an accuracy rate for the immigration benefits that make up over 95% of USCIS's workload. The purpose of this pilot was to establish a process whereby accuracy rates could be obtained efficiently and with a reliable degree of statistical validity for nearly all immigration benefits. The report concluded that this type of review is feasible and that the goal of determining the accuracy rate for the majority of application benefits can be effectively accomplished with a minimum use of personnel. USCIS issued a memorandum on June 8, 2009, stating that it will continue this review on a quarterly basis. In addition to these quarterly reviews, in March 2010, USCIS's newly established Office of Performance and Quality developed a strategic framework for USCIS's Quality Management Program. The strategy includes a focus on quality outcomes such as decisional integrity and accuracy, and development of benefits process measures including efficiency rates of processes, processing times, and process compliance and fraud. The steps USCIS has taken are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve its quality assurance efforts and to help ensure that benefits are provided only to eligible individuals, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to modify its quality assurance programs to address both adjudication process compliance and reasonableness of adjudicator decisions and expand coverage to all types of benefit applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

 

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