If comprehensive immigration reform legislation is signed into law, the administration of the legalization provisions of the new law would fall to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency within the Department of Homeland Security, which is currently responsible for adjudicating requests for immigration and citizenship benefits.
Is the agency, which adjudicated about 6 million applications for immigration and citizenship benefits in fiscal year 2012, ready to process at least three times that amount if an immigration reform law is signed that resembles the legislation (S. 744) currently before the U.S. Senate?
“Should comprehensive immigration reform pass, we’ll be ready to take in that new population of people,” said USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, speaking June 5 at the American Council on International Personnel’s 2013 Symposium, held in Arlington, Va.
“What might be perceived as a modest change in law could have significant operational repercussions,” he said. “But we will be ready, we will implement it effectively and we will implement it on time to meet everyone’s highest expectations.”
Mayorkas reminded the audience that USCIS was given only 60 days to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, which grants qualifying individuals temporary relief from the threat of deportation and temporary employment authorization.
As of February 2013, 438,372 youth had applied for deferred action and approximately 423,000 applications had been approved, according to the agency.
“We were as quick as we were asked to be, efficient, transparent and informative,” he said of the DACA implementation. He said that those hallmarks will be the same in the future when the agency handles the processing flow from any immigration reform legislation.
Mayorkas added that the level of upfront funding provisioned for the agency in the Senate bill will be necessary to cover operating expenses for the additional flow.
USCIS operating expenses are covered almost exclusively by the fees paid by applicants for immigration and citizenship benefits, rather than annual budget appropriations, like most other federal government agencies.
“If comprehensive immigration reform includes the path to legalization for an estimated 11.5 million undocumented individuals, we cannot build the infrastructure needed based on future revenue flows, like we did with DACA, where we borrowed money against the future,” he said.
Building Better Customer Service
Mayorkas gave a brief update on several agency initiatives designed to improve the customer service experience.
“One can’t snap one’s fingers to make such a sea change in an agency, but through incremental measures, or building blocks, we can move a large institution like ours,” he said.
These measures include:
*The Entrepreneurs in Residence program. “This very successful program has come to a conclusion,” Mayorkas said. The initiative brought entrepreneurial talent from the private sector into the agency to focus and address a critical government challenge: lack of professional knowledge about the industries the agency adjudicates. In the coming months, USCIS intends to expand the concept to a broader range of industries that it serves, including performing arts, health care, and information technology.
“It’s a building block to bring these people in and learn more about the professions that we touch,” he said.
*The new EB-5 immigrant investor visa office in Washington, D.C, which will launch this summer. Mayorkas said that USCIS is hiring economists to staff the D.C. office as adjudicators and case managers to be in direct communication with EB-5 petitioners or their representatives. “We need to hire [for] the skills that adjudicators need, rather than hire individuals and then try to train them in those skills. We are moving in that direction,” he said.
*A new centralized regulations office within the agency. Previously, regulatory responsibilities were spread out throughout the agency.
*Moving from a paper-based system to a secure, online environment named the USCIS Electronic Immigration System (USCIS ELIS). So far, it’s still a low-volume operation, only accepting the I-539 Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status and the $165 USCIS fee immigrants pay for permanent resident cards before they depart for the United States.
Mayorkas said that the next form types to go electronic are the Form I-90 application to replace a green card and the I-526 immigrant investor petition. All of the immigration system’s form types and functionalities are scheduled to go online eventually.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him at @SHRMRoy
Immigration Reform Passes Senate Committee, SHRM Online Global HR, May 2013
DHS Rules, Programs Revealed Amid Immigration Reform Talks, SHRM Online Global HR, February 2013
USCIS Director Outlines Agency Priorities for 2012, SHRM Online Global HR, June 2012
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