Stuck on the backburner: an analysis of USCIS'S backlog of immigration applications and potential reforms

AuthorRyan J. Fennell
PositionGeorgetown University Law Center, J.D. expected 2023; Boston College, B.A. 2018
Pages87-112
NOTES
STUCK ON THE BACKBURNER: AN ANALYSIS OF
USCIS’S BACKLOG OF IMMIGRATION
APPLICATIONS AND POTENTIAL REFORMS
RYAN J. FENNELL*
ABSTRACT
In recent years, the backlog of pending applications at U.S. Citizenship
and Immigration Services (USCIS) has surged. The backlog creates signifi-
cant processing delays, keeps immigrants in administrative limbo, and
obstructs the American dream. This Note examines USCIS’s origins and
duties, causes of the backlog, and potential reforms for backlog reduction.
USCIS leadership’s statements on the issue and bipartisan legislative pro-
posals indicate recent support to revamp the U.S. immigration system. Ideal
reforms, this Note argues, should include both internal measures within
USCIS and external measures from Congress and courts.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION ......................................... 88
I. USCIS AND ITS ADMINISTRATIVE ROLE .................... 90
A. Background on USCIS.......................... 90
B. Defining the Issue: What is Backlog?................ 92
C. Historical Background: Prior USCIS Backlog ......... 93
* Georgetown University Law Center, J.D. expected 2023; Boston College, B.A. 2018. I am grateful
for Professor Eloise Pasachoff’s feedback on earlier drafts of this Note and for suggestions from several
of my classmates at Georgetown Law. All errors are my own. © 2022, Ryan J. Fennell.
87
D. The Current Backlog........................... 94
II. CAUSES AND PROBLEMATIC FEATURES OF THE BACKLOG ......... 95
A. How Did We Get Here? ......................... 95
1. Structural Causes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
2. COVID-19 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
3. Substantive Policies ......................... 98
B. Why Does it Matter? Problematic Features of the Backlog 100
1. Administrative Waste . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
2. Humanitarian Costs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
3. Economic Concerns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103
4. Loss of Public Trust ......................... 105
III. REFORMS FOR BACKLOG REDUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
A. Internal Measures ............................. 106
B. External Measures ............................. 107
1. Congress ................................. 107
2. Courts ................................... 109
CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
INTRODUCTION
The federal government is facing an administrative crisis: an onslaught of
immigration applications is piling up. Perhaps more importantly, this backlog
creates hardship for Americans, prospective U.S. citizens, and potential resi-
dents whose pending applications (and livelihoods) remain stuck on the
administrative backburner. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’
(USCIS’s) backlog is deeply rooted and has grown over each of the three pre-
vious presidential administrations. Pending immigration cases increased dur-
ing the Bush administration, accelerated under President Obama, and
exploded during the Trump administration. USCIS’s backlog continues to
climb in 2022.
As President Biden begins his second year in office, attention is turning to
USCISthe agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
that grants applications for work permits, green cards, and naturalizationfor
answers. Over 8 million cases were pending at the end of 2021, more than tri-
ple the 2.5 million cases outstanding two years prior.
1
See Muzaffar Chishti & Julia Gelatt, Mounting Backlogs Undermine U.S. Immigration System and
Impede Biden Policy Changes, MIGRATION POLY INST. (Feb. 23, 2022), https://perma.cc/6UX9-E8DE.
Projections anticipate
1.
88 GEORGETOWN IMMIGRATION LAW JOURNAL [Vol. 37:87

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