Over the past few years USCIS has closed its doors on customers and has strayed away from its statutory customer service mission. We have personally experienced these changes over the last few years. This shift in priority is evident in several changes that the agency has made to its services both on a national and local level, and in several policies enacted during the last four years that appear to have been designed to make it harder for USCIS customers to obtain benefits. These measures have decreased customers’ ability to obtain meaningful engagement regarding case status, or necessary, and in some cases, urgent, or complex solutions to case-related issues.
As per past administration’s brief published by AILA, in February 2018, USCIS revised its mission statement to remove reference to the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” as well as to remove the reference to “customers.” The agency also stopped using the word “customer” when referring to petitioners/applicants in general. USCIS supplemented this change by quietly re-branding the National Customer Service Center (NCSC), as the USCIS Contact Center, and removing the word “customer” from agency materials such as the USCIS Policy Manual and offices designed to provide information and assistance to customers.
A critical part of quality customer service is adjudicating cases in a timely fashion. As per the past administration’s brief published by AILA there has been crisis level delays across various form types for immigrant and nonimmigrant applications and petitions. The overall average case processing time surged by 25 percent from the end of FY2017 through FY2019 despite a 10 percent decrease in overall case receipts, and by 101 percent from FY 2014 to the end of FY2019. Over the last fiscal year, the agency’s overall processing times have continued to rise by close to 5 percent. These delays result in lapsed work authorization, prolonged family separation, and extreme anxiety for USCIS’s customers.
Also, since the summer of 2017, USCIS began limiting who can access case information or case-specific assistance via the 1-800 number. Without providing notice to the public, the agency stopped accepting calls from law firm staff apart from the attorney of record. Attorneys must now spend significant time on hold or working their way through the USCIS phone system to complete what were previously simple tasks such as scheduling a local appointment or submitting a service request for an issue with a particular case. The agency consolidated almost all case-specific customer inquiries through the USCIS 1-800 phone line, making it the primary point of contact for customers. Customers using the phone line have faced significant technical and training issues without a separate recourse for follow up.
Once customers reach a live representative (Tier 1) and submit a request, there is still another step left in the process. They may still have to wait days before receiving a call back from an officer (Tier 2) able to assist, which could be received during non-working hours. If they miss callbacks from the agency, they may be required to start the process from scratch. Also recently introduced interactive response telephone system often states that the customers do not qualify to speak to an agent and would terminate the call, in some cases when an expedite request was being made. In addition, as per past administration’s policy brief published by AILA, the AILA members have received incorrect information and advice to both legal representatives and their clients due to a lack of training.
Recent introduction of the new InfoMod program by USCIS has resulted in the elimination of walk-in availability at local USCIS field offices. This is a stark change in policy that eliminates a key customer service function of the local USCIS office. In addition, in early 2018, USCIS eliminated the public use of the SCOPSSCATA@uscis.dhs.gov email address utilized by customers to follow up on case-specific inquiries. This email functioned as an important check on USCIS service centers, allowing customers to alert USCIS Service Center Operations staff about cases where the then National Customer Service Center (NCSC) and respective USCIS service center were either unresponsive or unhelpful in their response to a case-specific inquiry. Also, recently USCIS indicated its intention to close its 23 international offices, thereby drastically reducing its global footprint and access to important services for customers currently living or stationed overseas.
From the above discussion it is clear that over the last few years, USCIS has distanced itself from its duties to its customers through redundant and unnecessary policy changes. We hope that under the new administration the USCIS will take steps to rescind or amend the inefficient, costly, and in some cases destructive policies of the last few years, but also to instruct agency officials to reestablish USCIS’s customer service tools, rescind ineffective and inefficient policies, and ensure that USCIS is held accountable for the continued implementation of its customer service initiatives.
This article aims to provide new information concerning USCIS and its customer service. This article, under no circumstances, acts as legal advice; therefore, for any proclamation or any immigration questions, please contact your Attorney or the Ahluwalia Law Offices, P.C. (Team ALO).