U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
What OGIS Found
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a component agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), regularly receives and processes the largest volume of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests government-wide. Each workday in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, USCIS received an average of approximately 640 requests and responded to an average of approximately 560 requests. The volume of requests that USCIS receives generally prevents the FOIA office from responding to requests within the law’s 20-working-day time frame. As a result of the volume of requests it receives, coupled with its inability to respond in a timely fashion, USCIS regularly accounts for the largest agency share of the Federal government’s FOIA backlog: between FY 2009 and FY 2016, USCIS accounted for an average of almost 20 percent of the Federal government’s FOIA backlog.
The vast majority of USCIS’s requests are for Alien Files (A-Files) or certain immigration records within A-Files. USCIS also receives requests for records related to the development and implementation of policies, contracts, and other information about the agency’s actions. There are certain inherent challenges to processing A-Files, including that the records are paper-based and are frequently located off-site. Moreover, requesters may need to ask for the files multiple times for various immigration proceedings.
Between FY 2009 and FY 2016, USCIS accounted for an average of 19 percent of all requests processed across the government and an average of 4 percent of the government’s total FOIA costs. The USCIS FOIA office has a staffing structure and established workflows both of which are designed to ensure that requests are handled as efficiently as possible, and that complex requests are given extra attention. Over the last two years USCIS has used a Staffing Allocation Model to determine proper staffing levels and, as a result, 40 employees joined the FOIA staff. While the additional resources have allowed USCIS FOIA to make progress, the office is still not able to keep up with the current volume of requests and reduce the backlog.
USCIS’ transition to a new FOIA tracking and processing system, which is currently under design and development, and should be in use by the end of FY 2018, can help USCIS improve its customer service and efficiency. In particular, anticipated features that will enable requesters to directly submit requests into the system and allow for the electronic delivery of requests will be useful. Given the volume of requests that USCIS processes, any additional enhancements to the system can also have a substantial effect. USCIS may be able to further improve its efficiency by investigating how FOIA processors can use technology to enable computer-assisted review of some records and to allow processors to easily access pages that have been processed and released in response to earlier FOIA requests.
USCIS communicates with requesters about delays in processing requests, and lets requesters know how they can qualify for a faster processing track. This practice encourages requesters to ask only for records that they need. USCIS may be able to further encourage requesters to narrow the scope of their requests by prominently displaying appropriate contact information on its online tracking page.
OGIS’s primary findings are:
- strong management practices contribute to an efficient FOIA process;
- improvements to technology can further improve efficiency and customer service; and
- USCIS customer service supports an efficient FOIA process.
What OGIS Recommends
OGIS recommendations are that USCIS FOIA:
- continue to work with its leadership to ensure that the office has sufficient support to keep up with the current volume of requests and reduce its backlog;
- weigh the costs and benefits of producing machine-readable digitized versions of A-Files that will enable the use of computer-assisted review tools;
- explore how technology can be used to ensure that records do not need to be re-processed multiple times; and
- add appropriate contact information for USCIS FOIA to the online FOIA tracking page
Compliance Assessment Report
Title: "Efficient FOIA Process Supported by Strong Management and Customer Service; Investments in Technology Can Further Improve Performance"
Date: February 9, 2018
120-day Follow-Up Material
USCIS Response to OGIS Recommendations - August 22, 2018
120 Day Follow-Up Package - sent July 10, 2018