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Immigration agency sets up new virtual service center

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services seeks to reduce wait times for various types of humanitarian relief

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur Jaddou delivers remarks during a naturalization ceremony for active duty members of the U.S. military at USCIS headquarters in 2021 in Maryland.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur Jaddou delivers remarks during a naturalization ceremony for active duty members of the U.S. military at USCIS headquarters in 2021 in Maryland. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Corrected 9:54 a.m. | U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has started to staff up a new virtual service center dedicated to processing requests for humanitarian immigration relief, including visas for victims of crimes and domestic violence, in an effort to chip away at lengthy backlogs.

In an exclusive interview, USCIS director Ur Jaddou described the additional service center as an “important milestone for us” and part of the agency’s effort to reduce wait times for visas and other benefits. It will be the agency’s sixth service center and first all-virtual one.

“One of my biggest visions for USCIS is to ensure that this backlog — this unprecedented backlog — is something that, by the time I depart the agency, is well on its way to recovery,” Jaddou said. “The backlog has stopped growing and it’s starting to peer downward. My goal is to continue that slide downward.”

This newest service center, which is currently operating on a hybrid model but will eventually shift to being fully remote, will begin its next round of hiring on Friday, according to USCIS. The agency aims to have the new service center nearly fully staffed by the end of September 2024.

It adds to existing service centers in California, Nebraska, Virginia, Texas and Vermont. The center, while virtual, will accept both paper and electronic applications, according to Jaddou.

The new center will focus on processing four types of requests for humanitarian immigration relief: requests for status for crime victims under the U visa program and for domestic abuse survivors under the Violence Against Women Act, requests for refugees to bring over their relatives from abroad, and requests by certain undocumented immigrants to waive their unlawful presence and become permanent residents.

Jaddou said those types of requests were selected because of their longer processing times. According to processing times posted by USCIS, U visa applicants wait upward of five years, while VAWA petitions are generally processed within 33 months, for example.

“We took a look at what was going on, and we realized we need greater focus here,” Jaddou said.

She also said that while many USCIS activities will remain in-person, “we’re going to be doing more of this” in the future.

Awaiting relief

Immigrant advocates who were consulted by USCIS said the additional service center, with staff dedicated and trained to adjudicate those specific humanitarian request forms, could have sweeping impacts for abuse survivors awaiting immigration relief.

Leslye Orloff, director of the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project at American University Washington College of Law, said that faster processing of these petitions will allow abuse survivors to qualify for work authorization sooner.

For many, that could allow them to move out of their abusers’ homes.

“I think the formation of this service center will be a huge change. Probably one of the most significant changes for the adjudication of current victims’ cases that has happened in a long time,” Orloff said. “I think it’ll make a huge difference.”

Edna Yang, co-executive director of American Gateways, an immigration legal services provider in Texas, said it “is incredibly important” to have USCIS adjudicators be properly trained on the forms they are processing.

“It shows that these cases are a priority for the administration,” Yang said.

Staffing goals

The agency began staffing up the center, dubbed the Humanitarian, Adjustment, Removing Conditions and Travel Documents Service Center, or HART, in January when it reassigned about 150 current service center personnel. It plans to eventually hire an additional 330 employers to be fully staffed, according to USCIS.

As of Feb. 28, the new service center was at a 30 percent staffing level, according to USCIS. A job notice for additional roles is scheduled to be posted Friday, and the agency expects to fill those roles by the end of fiscal 2023, which concludes Sept. 30.

USCIS aims to have staffed 95 to 98 percent of the new service center by the end of fiscal 2024, according to the agency.

The additional center follows years of financial distress at USCIS, which narrowly averted having to furlough most of its workforce in 2020 amid steep declines in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency also implemented a hiring freeze, causing the workforce to dwindle as it was left unable to fill vacancies.

According to a USCIS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the agency experienced steady attrition and saw the net case backlog double by late 2021. The backlog extended wait times for immigration benefits across the board, from green cards to work permits.

USCIS is primarily funded by immigration application fees paid by immigrants and their employers, but Congress has given the agency more money in recent years.

The Biden administration requested $865 million in funding for the agency in its fiscal 2024 budget request released earlier this year.

Jaddou, who pledged in her confirmation hearing to make reducing wait times a top priority, said in the interview that these requested fiscal 2024 funds would go toward backlog reduction, among other agency needs.

She warned if Congress does not give the agency enough money, it will need to raise its fees. USCIS has already proposed steep hikes to its application fees, which could take effect as soon as May.

“If we want to get this ship in order and on that glide path towards a very healthy place for our legal immigration system, then we need to ensure that we are properly funded,” Jaddou said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also emphasized the need for more funds for USCIS at congressional hearings this week. Mayorkas told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that USCIS is “under tremendous financial strain.”

This report has been corrected to accurately reflect the states where service centers are located.

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