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Illustration by Michael Austin​

Getting the Green Light

​The current administration in the U.S. White House has raised concerns about the national security threat posed by the immigration system, which sparked a crackdown on foreigners residing both legally and illegally in the United States. An increase in arrests of illegal immigrants during U.S. President Donald Trump's first year in office, combined with the deadly fall 2017 truck attack in New York by an ISIS-inspired green card holder, raises questions about what it takes to live in the United States legally, and just how secure that process is.

A recent series of federal reports reveals that the process for granting permanent residence to foreign nationals—commonly known as issuing a green card—is inefficient and stuck in the 20th century. The largely paper-based application process is riddled with inaccurate information, and the time it takes for an application to be processed is more than twice the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) stated goal time.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which operates under DHS, oversees the processing of more than 50 types of foreign national benefits, including green cards. An April 2018 USCIS report documenting the issuance of green cards to legal immigrant workers sponsored by their employers paints a grim picture: immigrants from India with advanced degrees, for example, have a projected wait of 151 years to receive their green cards.

Not all waits for green cards are so long—several factors affect the quantity and frequency of green card dispersion, including the category of visa through which immigrants apply, their country of origin, their family, employment or education status, and more. According to a March 2018 DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report, USCIS field offices have an average completion time of more than seven months. The department's goal completion time is four months, which is achieved in fewer than 3 percent of cases, according to the OIG report.

"Lawmakers, immigration advocates, and the public have raised concerns about how long USCIS takes to adjudicate green card applications," the OIG report notes.

In addition, USCIS posts inaccurate green card application completion times on its website, which causes confusion for applicants and within the department itself. The OIG report found that the calculated date of when a decision will be made on an application is already six weeks out of date once it is posted on the website because it takes time to collect internal data.

"The information is confusing, unhelpful, and makes it very difficult to determine how long applicants can realistically wait for a decision," the OIG report states.

The website can also skew a field office's perceived rate of productivity. If a field office's number of pending applications rises suddenly, it can move the calculated decision date backwards.

"This apparent lengthening in processing time may make a field office appear inefficient when the reality may be quite different," the report states.

One example cited involved the Reno, Nevada, field office, which on the USCIS website appeared to have slow processing times—but was actually completing applications more quickly than the national average. Due to the office's efficiency, USCIS shifted more applications from other offices to Reno, which caused the website processing time to spike and display an inaccurate calculation—for a while, Reno was showed to take an average of 518 days to complete applications, when it actually completed them in about 184 days.

The overall delay in processing applications may be a matter of perception as well, according to the OIG. Because the application process consistently takes twice as long as the USCIS goal time, the report states that it is unrealistic and should be reassessed. In efforts to meet the current goal processing time, the department has spent $42.5 million in a five-year span for inspection service officers to work overtime to clear the backlog.

"USCIS has used temporary staffing assignments and overtime to keep processing times low, but it currently takes, on average, more than twice the amount of time," the OIG report notes. "We believe USCIS is not meeting its 120-day goal because the goal itself is unrealistic given the complexity of adjudications and factors beyond USCIS' control that affect the timeline. A goal that does not reflect operational realities contributes to unmet customer expectations and reduces trust in USCIS."

The OIG wasn't the only federal entity to investigate the green card application process. In a 2017 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigated just what is taking so long when it comes to processing green card applications—and whether the system ensures the integrity of the immigration process.

USCIS has been trying since 2006 to transform its current paper-based system into an electronic one but has faced management and development challenges—GAO notes that over the last 10 years, it has made 30 recommendations to address weaknesses in the program, 18 of which USCIS has complied with.

The so-called transformation program to create a software platform to process green card applications has experienced "significant cost increases and schedule delays," GAO reports. The program's most recent baseline indicates that it will cost up to $3.1 billion and be fully deployed by March 2019—that's an increase of $1 billion and four years longer than previously thought. The program has been operating in breach—without a DHS-approved acquisition strategy and baseline due to exceeding a previous baseline—off and on since 2013.

"The program did not complete deployment of system functionality associated with its Citizenship line of business by its September 2016 deadline, resulting in another schedule breach," says Carol Harris, director of information technology acquisition management issues at GAO. "Since then, we have reported that the program remains in breach. Until the program re-baselines, it is unclear whether USCIS still intends to fully deploy by March 2019."

After the September 2016 breach, USCIS had planned to re-baseline the program in February 2017, but GAO reports that in December 2016, DHS leadership instructed the department to stop development on the project and instead develop a remediation plan. "DHS leadership elected to continue with the program's pause in new development following program reviews in March 2017, July 2017, and October 2017," GAO noted in a recent update. The program's office also underwent a reorganization in January 2017. When asked if the pause in development was due to the new White House administration, Harris says that GAO did not investigate or report on the reason for revising the remediation plan.

The continual delays in deploying a fully electronic application system are impacting the ability of USCIS to realize the cost savings and benefits of the eventual transformation, GAO notes. Currently, legacy systems must remain operational until the electronic system is fully deployed. Even in 2014, GAO notes, it cost USCIS an extra $71 million to maintain both systems. And a previous software system that the department spent eight years and $475 million to develop was decommissioned in 2016 due to its instability.

There are still serious questions about whether the new software—if or when it's fully deployed—will solve the department's backlog woes. GAO notes that by operating in breach status for so long and not addressing key practices for software development, USCIS risks deploying a system that does not meet its cost, schedule, or performance needs.

"It is more important than ever that USCIS consistently follow key practices associated with software development, systems integration and testing, and contract management and execute effective program oversight and governance," the GAO report states.

OIG notes that a larger percentage of foreign nationals may be subject to interviews in the future, further lengthening the amount of time it will take to complete the green card application process. That report recommended that USCIS update its website to more accurately reflect the length of the application process and to reassess the current goal of 120 days, and the department concurred, noting that it will monitor processing times over the next year and consider a new goal time.

"The integrity of the citizenship process depends on careful adjudication of green card applications," the OIG report states. "Given their responsibility and the consequences of their decisions, [information service officers] should continue to be given time to thoroughly vet applicants, especially if adjudicating green card applications becomes more complex." ​