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A Perfect Storm: Immigration Service Functions Likely to Collapse Under DHS

A Perfect Storm: Immigration Service Functions Likely to Collapse Under DHS

Monday, June 17, 2002

On November 25, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act, a massive government reorganization plan which, among other changes, abolishes the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and transfers all immigration functions to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The incorporation of the INS into the mammoth new department will have grave and far-reaching consequences for immigrants, their families, and the quality of U.S. immigration services. Like all Americans, immigrants want the U.S. government to take steps to prevent future terrorist attacks, but they fear that placing immigration services in a department explicitly created for internal security will jeopardize the immigration agency’s historical mission of uniting families, admitting talented workers, and protecting the persecuted.

The Homeland Security Act was pushed through Congress by the Bush Administration with little debate and deliberation, particularly with respect to the immigration-related provisions contained in the 475-page bill. The new law dismantles the INS, forcing the most dramatic changes in the structure and function of U.S. immigration services since the creation of the INS nearly 70 years ago. The gargantuan new DHS will employ more than 170,000 workers and merge 22 diverse agencies, including the INS, the Customs Service, FEMA, and the Coast Guard. The law splits up the thousands of systems and the 34,000 employees of the INS, placing immigration enforcement functions (border patrol, detention and removal, intelligence, investigations and inspections) within DHS’s largest division – Border and Transportation Security – while placing immigration services (immigrant visa petitions, naturalization applications, asylum and refugee applications, and service center adjudications) in the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This report explores the federal government’s record in recent years with regard to “reforms” of INS processes, current problems with immigration application processing, and several of the factors most likely to result in unprecedented new backlogs and systems failures as immigration functions are transferred to the DHS.

Learning from Recent “Reform” Efforts and Current INS Problems

Over the past decade, INS has had tremendous difficulty implementing administrative changes of far lesser magnitude than those that will occur with the incorporation of immigration functions into the new DHS. Given this troubled record, the fracturing of immigration functions across the hierarchy and systems of the new agency provides numerous opportunities for breakdowns in application processing. Naturalization applications and adjustment-of-status applications are among the types of adjudications that are likely to grind to a halt with the transfer to DHS.

Naturalization. In 1996, new processing requirements for the naturalization program were implemented, including the requirement that INS open and operate more than 100 new fingerprinting sites. By the following year, adjudications had dropped by nearly half, from 1.3 million in 1996 to 700,000 in 1997, and down to 600,000 in 1998. Naturalization backlogs grew from 700,000 in 1995 to 1.8 million in 1998. Delays in naturalization endured despite massive efforts to modernize the program and a hefty application fee increase.

Adjustment of Status. As INS diverted resources to cope with the swelling naturalization backlog, the adjustment backlog grew, from 120,000 cases in 1994 to more than 1 million in 2000. In 2000, an INS study revealed that 25% of adjustment applicants overall, 48% of adjustment applicants in New York, and 39% in Los Angeles were waiting at least 24 months for their cases to be adjudicated. The backlog of family-based petitions has increased from about 200,000 in 1994 to approximately 700,000 in 2000.

Asylum and Refugee Processing. Even before 9/11, INS had demonstrated an inability to cope with even relatively minor changes in the asylum processing system. Asylum reform in 1990 resulted in a nearly 500% increase in backlogs over a five-year period (from 97,000 in 1990 to 464,000 by 1995), due to a shortage of funding and staffing at the agency. Since 9/11, the INS has nearly shut down refugee processing, even though refugees represent one of the most thoroughly-vetted immigrant streams.

Backlogs and Processing Delays Likely to Swell Under DHS Structure

While it is not possible to make definitive projections, it is highly likely that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of immigration cases will become backlogged under the new agency. American employers and families who have petitioned for immigrants to join them now face a “perfect storm” scenario. Several factors, each of which on its own could result in delays of many months or years for hundreds of thousands of cases, now threaten to collide under the new agency and cause breakdowns in a variety of application processing systems that could affect millions of cases.

Acute Staffing Shortages Expected. INS’s adjudications programs were facing serious staffing problems long before the transfer to DHS, due to the lack of permanent job titles, lower pay compared to jobs on the enforcement side of the agency, and lengthy waiting periods for processing of new hires. The agency increasingly relied on temporary and contract staff through the 1990s, so much so that almost 50% of INS’s total adjudications workforce now consists of temporary and contract staff. Attrition rates for these staff are more than double that of permanent staff working in the same districts. The hemorrhaging of experienced staff has increased over time, as large numbers have left for more attractive positions at other government agencies. In 2002, for example, the INS has seen a 500% increase in the loss of immigration inspectors and other employees to other agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration. Even more alarming are recent statistics from the Partnership for Public Service which show that roughly one quarter of INS employees will be eligible to retire by 2006. Thus, the INS is limping into the high-stakes DHS transition period with thousands of positions unfilled, roughly 50% of its adjudications workforce temporary or contract workers, and one quarter of its employees on the verge of retirement. This fragmented and demoralized workforce is expected to adjudicate more than 10 million applications per year in a mammoth new agency where its work will be the lowest institutional priority. Given these factors, ballooning backlogs and systems paralysis are a virtual certainty.

Insufficient Funding – A Present and Future Reality. Historically, INS services have been severely under-funded, with priority usually given to Border Patrol and enforcement activities. While INS’s budget has more than tripled since FY 1992, from 1.4 billion to 4.8 billion in FY 2001, almost all of that increase has been for enforcement and border initiatives; INS’s enforcement budget was more than five times that for adjudications and naturalization in 2001. Services likely will be even more marginalized in the new security-focused organization. In an attempt to address the escalating backlog of adjustment cases, INS’s Immigration Services Division (ISD) submitted a reprogramming request for 534 new positions, including more than 300 permanent positions, for FY 2003. Despite repeated promises from the Bush Administration and Congress that immigration adjudications and backlog reduction would remain a high priority under the new DHS structure, the ISD was unable to win support for its request. With zero of these positions approved, ISD estimates that backlog elimination efforts will be set back a minimum of one year. Surely, the bargaining power of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services will be even weaker under DHS, where it will compete for funding with numerous enforcement agencies such as the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service. Backlogs can only be expected to increase under this scenario.

Administrative Confusion and Lack of Coordination Mean Chaos for Millions of Applicants. Building the DHS entails the merger of 22 federal agencies, the largest reorganization of the federal government in 50 years. While the reorganization process will be difficult for all agencies involved, the INS is the only one among them that must continue to receive and process more than 10 million applications and petitions filed annually by individuals and U.S. businesses for a wide variety of immigration-related benefits. INS has cited inadequate automation as the number one factor affecting its ability to process applications in a timely manner. Its existing inadequacies in information technology will be magnified by the flood of new information sharing demands that will result from and are a major rationale for the DHS merger. Systems breakdowns that may occur in this environment will have calamitous results for hundreds of thousands of INS applicants and will be far more difficult to resolve given the administrative confusion and lack of coordination that will undoubtedly characterize the early years of DHS. The likelihood of significant systems failure is great, especially when viewed in light of performance data on organizational mergers. In the short term, many private-sector mergers actually result in a 50% decline in productivity and effectiveness in the first four to eight months following the merger. A 50% decline in productivity in the adjustment and naturalization program, even for just six months, could be devastating in terms of backlog growth. Based on 2002 figures, a 50% decline in adjudications productivity for six months would mean more than 155,000 additional backlogged naturalization cases and more that 240,000 additional adjustment-of-status applications piled onto a backlog that stood just under one million cases in FY 2002.

New Procedures and Systems Should Add Quality, Not Delays, to Adjudications Processes. New procedures and systems are already generating new backlogs, without necessarily achieving any gains in security or quality of adjudications. Like all Americans, immigrants want the U.S. government to take steps to prevent future terrorist attacks and would welcome security measures that are effective and fair. However, many of the post-9/11 procedures intended to increase security have been dull-edged measures that place heavy burdens on fragile immigration procedures while adding little to the country’s security. For example, the institution of one additional security check already has added seven months to adjustment processing time, largely because the new requirement was mandated before service centers and districts were properly trained or equipped to carry out the new procedure. The July 2002 INS requirement that all non-citizens submit change of address forms resulted in a 700,000-form backlog within 60 days. Clumsy implementation of such measures unnecessarily burdens immigration functions at a time when the agency should be focusing its limited resources on processes that add both quality and security to its adjudications.


In his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised Latino and immigrant voters that immigration paperwork processing would be reduced to six months under his watch. With the passage of the Homeland Security Act, President Bush’s campaign pledge appears all but forgotten. In the past year, immigrants already have gotten a bitter taste of what is in store for immigration services in the new enforcement-minded era – a virtual freeze in adjudications, the denial of funding for increased resources to compensate for security check delays, and an adjustment backlog that has hovered at the one million mark for close to four years. It is becoming increasing clear that escalating backlogs and dysfunctions in service provision will remain the norm.

Far from having achieved a six-month timeframe for adjudications, processing times for many applications are already four times that timeframe, and it is not farfetched to anticipate scenarios in which processing times may even take ten times as long as President Bush had promised. Based on the foregoing, The New York Immigration Coalition calls on President Bush and Congress to adopt the following recommendations:

  • The new immigration services agency should take all necessary measures, including the hiring of additional staff and the implementation of automated procedures, to eliminate backlogs and reduce processing time of all immigration applications to six months, as promised by President Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign.
  • Immigration services must not be marginalized in the Department of Homeland Security. Although enforcement will be an important responsibility, equal emphasis must be placed on improving services – including more expeditious processing of naturalization and immigration benefits applications, as well as the timely admission of immigrants, refugees and visitors to the United States. Adequate planning, funding and staffing are vital if the new immigration agency is to meet its new mandates and continue with its current work. Resources for adjudications must not be diminished in order to augment enforcement coffers.
  • Chronic staffing shortages in the adjudications and naturalization program must be addressed. The immigration services bureau should expedite the hiring of permanent adjudications officers and support staff, using incentives such as better pay equaling that of Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors, whose starting salaries are often higher. Steps must be taken to reduce attrition and to encourage development of career officers.
  • The services bureau must expedite the development of an integrated case management system and other automated systems that effectively improve applications processing, can handle numerous types of immigration applications, and provide better feedback and tracking of applications processing issues.
  • Congress should increase the level of direct appropriations for the immigration services bureau, supplementing funds derived from application fees. Direct appropriations are necessary to cover the cost of badly-needed information technology improvements and increased staffing levels, which are critical to reducing backlogs in all types of applications. Funds derived from application fees must not be diverted to non-service-related functions. There must be no new fees to pay for IBIS checks or other new measures – fees already were increased recently, and the high cost is placing immigration services beyond the reach of many families.
  • INS’s transition to DHS must be properly and carefully planned and executed, in order to minimize the administrative chaos and confusion that threaten to grind applications processing to a standstill, creating huge new backlogs and undoing years of hard-won gains.
  • The implementation of the new immigration bureaus must be guided by officials who are expert in immigration policy, who understand the needs of the services function, and who can ensure the necessary coordination of the separate but interdependent services and enforcement functions.
  • Whatever the ultimate committee structure, the Congressional oversight committee with jurisdiction over the immigration services bureau must include members who understand immigration services issues and are committed to improving services for the millions of families, individuals, and U.S. businesses who are at the mercy of the immigration application processing system.
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