DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is tentatively scheduled to testify before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee about DHS immigration enforcement policies on May 6, 2009. Given Secretary Napolitano’s novel interpretations of federal law, the Heritage Foundation will be posting a series of questions (and suggested answers) for the Secretary. Past questions can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

What are the challenges currently facing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and what changes does the Obama Administration plan to make to tackle these problems?

Reforming U.S. immigration policy is one aspect of reform. However, until the agency tasked with processing incoming immigrants is reformed, little improvement will be made. As of now, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) could not handle a surge of legal immigrants, in part because it has a faulty budget model based on application fees. For USCIS to be responsive to immigration reform, its revenue structure should be changed to give the USCIS more flexibility. This can be accomplished by investing in workplace enforcement and by establishing a national trust fund to pay for programs for which the USCIS cannot charge fees (for example, amnesty applications and naturalization of military personnel).

The pay-as-you-go model that Congress has imposed on the USCIS is not working because not everyone is paying and those that are paying are not contributing in an equitable manner. Simply raising fees perpetuates an unfair and inefficient system. The Obama Administration should seek to:

Establish a national trust fund to cover the programs for which the USCIS cannot charge a fee (e.g., amnesty applications and natural­ization of military personnel). It makes no sense for Congress to require the USCIS to process applications or petitions of immigrants without providing the funds to cover the costs of those activities. More critically, it is fundamentally unfair for Congress to place the burden of those costs on the backs of other immigrants seeking entry into America, many of whom can barely afford to pay for their own costs.
Use the fees to support the main purpose for which they are collected. Rather than being used to fund the majority of USCIS operations, fees should be used to support services like legal immigration, naturalization, and assimilation, thereby strengthening the naturalization process.
Critically examine calls to increase fees. At a time when the United States is making a concerted effort to encourage those who wish to come to this country to use legal means, substantially raising fees might achieve the unintended consequence of deterring individuals from complying with U.S. immigration laws.
Improving Processes. Despite five years of effort and over $500 million, the USCIS still has not managed to overcome outdated practices, inefficiencies, and inadequate technology. The result is an unprecedented backlog of applications and petitions. Similarly, for security purposes, the USCIS must eliminate such processes as mailing green cards without receipt verification so that multiple green cards are not used for fraudulent or criminal activity.

Another aspect of the problem is the USCIS’s failure to modernize effectively beyond such legacy systems as the Computer Linked Application Information Management System.

For more Heritage research on USCIS reform, check out Next Steps for Immigration Reform and Workplace Enforcement.