U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur Jaddou put out a plea Wednesday to Congress for more funding to help the immigration agency tackle lengthy visa backlogs and processing times that have kept applicants in limbo for months or longer.
During a stakeholder briefing, Jaddou acknowledged mounting visa delays, which have caused individuals applying to receive and renew visas and work permits to wait months, some losing their jobs in the meantime.
“Let me be very clear. Our processing times are too long. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Jaddou, who was confirmed to her post in July.
She emphasized the issue “is critically important to me and my colleagues,” adding that everyone who applies for an immigration benefit with USCIS “is entitled to a timely decision, be it yes or no.”
While noting USCIS has improved its financial standing in recent years, Jaddou said the agency still needs “additional resources to decrease processing times and to tackle the unprecedented backlog and our ever growing humanitarian mission.”
Congress passed an emergency funding law in 2020 that allowed USCIS to collect higher fees for fast-tracked processing and offer the service on more types of applications, which the agency has yet to fully implement. Later that year, Congress gave the agency nearly $128 million in its fiscal 2021 spending bill.
Senate Democrats have proposed giving the agency $345 million in fiscal 2022, while House appropriators have proposed giving the agency roughly $474 million this fiscal year.
“I cannot stress this enough: Appropriations are critical to the long-term success of this agency,” Jaddou said. “USCIS must continue to receive appropriations to meet the increasing demand for many of our humanitarian benefits.”
Jaddou also previewed an upcoming agency regulation to raise immigration application fees. USCIS, which is primarily fee-funded, is the Homeland Security agency responsible for adjudicating requests for green cards, asylum and U.S. citizenship. It previously attempted to raise its fees under the Trump administration, including by adding a first-ever asylum application fee, but the rule was struck down in court.
Felicia Escobar Carrillo, the USCIS chief of staff, previously indicated fee hikes were in the works while speaking at a virtual immigration conference in May.
Jaddou did not indicate when the higher fees would take effect, but said the agency would be seeking public feedback later this year for a “new, equitable fee structure that balances the needs of our agency with our goals of promoting access to the system.”
These fees will be particularly needed if Congress does not allocate more funds for the immigration agency, she said.
“This rule will be critical, critical to the success of our mission, and even more critical if USCIS continues as a primarily fee-funded [organization] without appropriate congressional funding,” she said.
Jaddou’s comments come exactly one year after President Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders aimed at revising an immigration system increasingly restricted under the Trump administration.
One of those orders, signed Feb. 2 of last year, called on Homeland Security leaders to identify ways to improve trust in the system and to adjudicate immigration requests fairly and efficiently.
USCIS has also suffered financially in recent years, in part due to a dip in applications and to travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency narrowly averted furloughs of more than half of its employees in 2020 and implemented a hiring freeze.
In a July 2021 annual report to Congress, the Homeland Security ombudsman said the immigration agency “is still running at a revenue loss,” which will lead to “continuing backlogs and lengthening processing times.”
In her Wednesday remarks, Jaddou also pointed to ways in which the agency has made progress in the past year.
USCIS eliminated a so-called “front log” of unopened immigration applications that built up during the pandemic, Jaddou said. The agency also reduced the fingerprinting appointment line from more than 1.4 million in January 2021 to a more “manageable” 83,000.
Jaddou also pledged to increase staffing, including by hiring nearly 200 new employees in the agency’s asylum division to focus on reducing the backlog.