United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently requested input on how the agency can improve access to immigration services & benefits.
We know that when immigrants & refugees are able to access jobs that match their education and skill sets, we all benefit: Immigrants’ income & tax contributions increase four-fold; their essential skills & resilience support our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and longer-term economic recovery.
Access to immigration benefits & work authorization—all services provided through USCIS—are critical in building these career pathways.
Upwardly Global shared stories from our community to make the case for fair fee structures, access to virtual appointments, prompt processing of work authorization applications. We applaud the efforts of policy makers to solicit feedback from the communities they serve and are eager to help center their voices. When immigrants, refugees and asylees are able to thrive, we all thrive, both socially and economically.
Read our full comment below.
RE: USCIS Barriers Impeding Access to
Immigration Services and Benefits
May 18, 2021
Upwardly Global respectfully submits a comment in response to Request for Public Input USCIS-2021-0004-0001, “Identifying Barriers Across U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Benefits and Services.”
Upwardly Global is a national nonprofit organization committed to building an inclusive, future-ready workforce that embraces the skills of work-authorized immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, who come to the U.S. with post-secondary education and professional experience from their home countries. Since our founding in 2000, we have supported more than 18,000 immigrant professionals with job coaching, networking and skill-building programs, ensuring that they can fully contribute their education, skills and experience to the U.S. workforce, including in some of the most high-demand fields.
We have found that when immigrants with international credentials are paired with jobs that match their education and skill set, they are able to support economic and societal needs and at the same time, increase their net income—and consequently their tax contributions—by nearly 445 percent. However, if their work authorization is delayed or unreliable, they—and therefore all of us—are set back considerably and workforce inclusion stymied. Accordingly, we are eager for this opportunity to provide you with input about the impact of policies on lived experiences of our community, and we hope it will support efforts to improve adjudications and overall processes at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), making the immigration process and benefits more accessible to immigrants and refugees, their employers, family members, and legal representatives.
The more than 1,500 immigrant professionals in our job coaching program today depend on reliable, accessible, and timely services from USCIS to secure the benefits that will allow them to fully contribute their professional skills and experience to the U.S. workforce and economy. These credentials and skills, as outlined below, are particularly critical as the U.S. continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and work towards a full economic recovery:
- Validated bachelors and advanced degrees from their countries of origin, with more than half of credentials in high-demand STEM fields;
- An average of more than 8 years of professional experience in high-demand sectors, including fields that have emerged as essential during the COVID-19 pandemic such as health care, engineering, IT, and logistics;
- Experience working in conflict and crisis situations, including epidemics and pandemics in their countries of origin;
- Multilingual skills and cultural competencies that have been linked to improved health outcomes in diverse communities, including the immigrant communities and communities of color disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus; and
- Inherent resilience and diversity that is consistently linked to innovation, problem-solving, and improved bottom lines in U.S. workplaces.
When able to access immigration benefits, including employment authorization documents (EAD), in a timely manner, our program alumni earn an average salary of nearly $65,000 today and contribute over $350 million to the economy each year.
However, in recent years, USCIS has experienced crisis-level case processing delays and an ever-growing immigration backlog. In recent years, these challenges have been compounded by inefficient policies and practices that needlessly delay adjudications and divert resources away from the agency’s core functions. In addition, over the past four years, USCIS has shifted its priorities away from its customer-oriented origins, resulting in the deterioration of customer service at national and local levels.
The inefficient policies and practices that are impeding access to USCIS immigration benefits and the fair, efficient adjudications of these benefits have negatively affected Upwardly Global program participants in various ways, as outlined below:
- Requirements for in-person interviews, fee increases, and unnecessary redundancies with biometrics and renewals have impeded access to USCIS services. Before entering our job coaching program, Upwardly Global participants are among the more than two million un- or under-employed college-educated immigrants living in this country, working in rapid-attachment jobs that do not make full use of their education or skills. Furthermore, many of these rapid-attachment jobs are in sectors that have experienced disruptions as a result of COVID-19, including restaurants and hospitality, rideshare programs, and the service industry. As a result, the vast majority of Upwardly Global participants experience poverty before connecting with our program. Limited disposable income and reliable transportation has hindered our community’s ability to access USCIS services, especially given requirements for mandatory in-person interviews for routine cases, costly re-submission of biometrics for routine renewals, and proposed fee increases. Our program participants routinely share stories about having to borrow money from family members to pay USCIS fees: A software developer from Russia recently described how he went into debt to pay USCIS fees and is struggling to pay off loans on his current minimum-wage salary, which complicates his efforts to secure living-wage employment in his field.
Recommendation: Upwardly Global calls for USCIS to eliminate mandatory in-person interview requirements for routine cases and reuse biometrics and/or waive biometrics requirements for certain cases, especially renewals.
- Backlogs in processing affirmative asylum applications, along with related barriers to accessing EAD, create years of limbo and hardship for asylum seekers. As of the first quarter of FY21, there were more than 394,000 affirmative asylum applications pending processing. The backlog is driven by staffing shortages and budget shortfalls, and is compounded by related regulatory changes that have put EAD out of reach for many asylum seekers, denying them the means to self-sufficiency while their cases are being adjudicated. These changes include the repeal of a 30-day timeline for USCIS to process initial EAD applications from asylum seekers, a doubling of the wait time to apply for an initial EAD, sharp increase in fees for first-time EAD applicants; and a new rule that allows adjudicators to deny EAD applications based on discretion even if the applicant is eligible and meets all application requirements. Implementation of some of these regulatory changes has been challenged in court, but USCIS must take action to rescind or revoke the new rules. One of countless stories we hear: An asylum seeker from Morocco—a program manager with experience in monitoring and evaluation for international development agencies—waited three years to have his case adjudicated, delaying his ability to attain self-sufficiency in the U.S. Even after asylum seekers have secured EADs, U.S. employers are often hesitant to hire these otherwise-qualified workers, given concerns or misunderstandings about their status.
Recommendation: Upwardly Global calls for funding to increase USCIS staffing to address backlogs. We request action from USCIS to rescind or revoke recent regulatory changes, restoring the 180-day waiting requirement for initial EAD applications, the 30-day timeframe for USCIS to process those applications; and previous free structures. USCIS should also eliminate the August 2020 provision that allows adjudicators to deny EAD applications based on discretion.
- Delays in renewing EADs have disrupted essential, high-demand work. The backlogs and staffing shortages described above have also led to Upwardly Global program participants and alumni experiencing delays in renewing EADs, which, in turn, leads to disruptions of critical work. An Upwardly Global alum engaged in clinical research related to COVID-19 struggled to renew his EAD last summer amidst acute staffing shortages at USCIS. He feared that the delay would result in a furlough from his job, loss of income to his family, and disruption to his research. Similar situations are commonplace among many of our 7500 alumni who are productive members of our workforce, many in industries facing shortages of labor now.
Recommendation: Upwardly Global recommends expanding the validity period for EADs for up to three years and allowing applicants to begin the renewal process earlier than the current guideline of 180 days before expiration date. If EADs are adjudicated in a timely manner and are issued earlier than the expiration date, Upwardly Global encourages USCIS to forward date renewal EADs so that the renewal EADs do not compromise the time from the prior EAD.
The talented, essential workers that Upwardly Global serves cannot afford processing delays at USCIS—and neither can the U.S. workforce or economy. Upwardly Global calls on USCIS to improve its efficiency in adjudications by eliminating inefficient processes and policies and to improve its customer service to ensure that USCIS remains true to its statutory mission for a service-oriented, fair, and efficient agency.
Executive Vice President