Backlogs, processing delays, and revenue shortfalls are nothing new at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The agency has long suffered from severe structural problems that hurt people who depend on it for work authorization, adjustment of status, naturalization, and many other immigration benefits.
However, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on agency operations has made a bad situation much worse. As the 2021 Annual Report of the USCIS Ombudsman describes, the agency is now experiencing backlogs of applications and petitions “at record levels,” as well as drastically reduced “customer service functions.”
The report points out that, even before the pandemic, USCIS was struggling with declining receipts and fee revenue that was insufficient to cover operating costs. But receipts and fee revenue dropped even further when the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a near-total shutdown of the agency’s offices in March 2020.
Many USCIS functions depend on face-to-face interactions. The shutdown was devastating for applicants and petitioners whose in-person interviews, biometrics appointments, and oath ceremonies were suddenly cancelled.
USCIS field offices were gradually reopened at limited capacity—with reduced services and fewer staff—starting in June 2020. All field offices were open by October but were offering services at only about 50% capacity at that point. As a result, backlogs and processing times grew enormously throughout the course of the year.
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