Kennedy, Schumer, Leahy letter to Chertoff on USCIS backlog

(Via Senator Kennedy's press release. You can also read a pdf of the letter, which includes the requests for information, on our website.)

March 19, 2008

Secretary Michael Chertoff
Department of Homeland Security
20 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20529

Dear Secretary Chertoff:

We are deeply troubled by the serious backlog of naturalization applications pending adjudication at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Last year, USCIS announced it would increase the naturalization fee by 80% from $330 to $595 (if the biometrics fee increase is included, the total fee increase is from $400 to $675, or 69%). As a result, almost a million and a half immigrants applied for naturalization before the increase went into effect. The agency justified the unprecedented fee increase by arguing that it would solve many agency problems and pay for a 20% efficiency improvement in adjudicating naturalization applications. At the time, USCIS reported that the average processing time for naturalization was 5.57 months, just under its stated six-month goal.

However, the USCIS recently announced that it will take 14-16 months to process naturalization applications filed after June 2007. In other words, for naturalization applications filed after the fee increase, USCIS is now charging almost twice as much for a service that takes twice as long.

The agency has responded to previous Congressional inquiries on this issue by stating that it could not have foreseen this surge in applications. We do not find that argument persuasive. Every previous naturalization fee increase has had the same effect. Preceding each of the naturalization fee increases in 1998, 2002 and 2004, a large surge in applications took place. It should have come as no surprise that the agency received 1.4 million naturalization applications in FY 2007, nearly double the volume received in the previous fiscal year. Despite knowledge that the fee increase would bring a surge in applications, the agency apparently did nothing to prepare for it. Clearly, a work plan should have been put in place well before the fee increase was implemented.

We understand that USCIS is now preparing a response plan to deal with the backlog. The agency has begun to hire an additional 1,500 employees, of whom 723 are adjudicators. To date, 580 have been hired, including 274 adjudicators. We also are aware that the office of Personnel Management, on request of USCIS, has extended USCIS temporary authority to rehire retired annuitants to assist in clearing the backlog. We commend these efforts, but we understand that the agency does not believe they will have an impact soon enough to ensure that most of the applicants who filed in FY 2007 will become U.S. citizens in FY 2008.

We recognize that the FBI name check verification process is delaying approximately 145,000 naturalization applications. But the FBI cannot be held responsible for the vast majority of the naturalization applications backlog. In fact, according to the USCIS Production Update Reports, USCIS does not include applications currently held by the FBI in the official count of its backlog.

It has also recently come to our attention that last year, USCIS experienced a so-called "front log," in which the agency did not immediately process many naturalization applications received by mail and failed to send applicants a receipt confirmation for several months. Thus, the agency delayed the date on which the applicant was entered in the USCIS system to begin the adjudication process. We are concerned about this problem, and we wish to learn more about what occurred last year and what steps the agency has taken to eliminate the front log.

In order to fully understand the scope of the USCIS backlog and front log problems, we request further information. Our specific requests are contained in the attachment. The agency's responses will help us fully understand the scope of the backlog and front log problem and identify the areas where the agency needs the most assistance in alleviating these delays. It will be especially helpful to the Committee to have this information prior to your appearance before the Committee on April 2, 2008 and so we ask that you return the information by March 28, 2008.

We also ask that you report to the Committee on a bi-weekly basis from this time forward on the progress made in the adjudication of naturalization applications, including how many cases have been completed during each two-week period and how many are still pending, including the dates of submission of the pending cases.

We appreciate your assistance with this request, and we ask you to coordinate your responses with Wendy Young, Chief Counsel for Immigration Policy, Subcommittee on Immigration (202) 224-7878;, Matt Virkstis, Counsel, Judiciary Committee (202) 224-7703;, and Sandra Gallardo, Senior Counsel, Oversight and Investigations (202) 224-3112; With respect and appreciation, and we would be grateful for your prompt consideration of our request.


Patrick J. Leahy
Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary

Edward M. Kennedy
Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration Refugees and Border Security

Charles E. Schumer
Chairman, Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts