House Oversight Committee chairman wants answers on legal immigration backlog

Rep. Elijah Cummings voices concerns about immigration ombudsman’s commitment in a letter obtained exclusively by NBC News.
Elijah Cummings
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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By Heidi Przybyla and Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — The U.S. agency tasked with helping immigrants who’ve come into the country legally to become citizens may be “failing to fulfill” its most basic duties, according to a letter obtained by NBC News.

In a Feb. 6 letter to Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman Julie Kirchner, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said he’s received “troubling reports” that “raise significant questions” about whether Kirchner has “sufficient commitment” to the agency’s mission.

According to a committee aide, there’s a backlog across the board at USCIS, but it may be worse in certain types of cases involving humanitarian issues, like refugee, asylum, and special immigrant visa assistance requests.

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Cummings, who is requesting several documents and a briefing for committee staff, cited casework backlogs and failure to meet deadlines for responding to requests for assistance, among other concerns. The chairman also writes that he is concerned Kirchner is not addressing “systemic concerns raised by employees” and is experiencing "high staff turnover” as a result of these challenges.

The information his office has received is “particularly troubling,” said Cummings, given Kirchner’s past position as executive director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, an anti-immigration nonprofit that says its mission is to “reduce overall immigration.”

Though Cummings’ request includes any communications related to “prioritizing certain categories of casework over others.” It also requests any correspondence between Kirchner and FAIR, where she was executive director from 2007 to 2015.

In response, USCIS spokesman Michael Bars told NBC News the agency "has implemented a range of process and operational reforms, hired additional staff, and expanded its facilities to ensure its ability to adjudicate keeps pace with unprecedented demand for its services over recent years. Where possible, cases are completed well within the agency’s standard processing goals. USCIS strives to adjudicate all applications, petitions, and requests as effectively and efficiently as possible in accordance with all applicable laws, policies, and regulations.”

According to the Homeland Security Act, the ombudsman is tasked with assisting individuals and employers with specific problems dealing with CIS as well as propose administrative changes to ease the process for all.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump said, "I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally."

But in fact, his administration has pushed for policies to make legal immigration and life for legal immigrants harder.

Thousands of immigrants attempting to enter the country by claiming asylum at a legal port of entry are backed up along the Mexico border. The administration has also introduced policies to make it harder for workers to enter the country through the H1B visa lottery. And it will soon finalize a rule that restricts access to green cards from immigrants who have used public benefits like food stamps.