Remarks Delivered by Director Ur M. Jaddou at the 2021 National Immigrant Integration Conference
Good morning everyone! Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate in the 2021 National Immigrant Integration Conference. Today, we celebrate a theme of “Leaving No One Behind: Our Vision for Immigrant Inclusion.”
I’d like to take a moment to thank Nicole Melaku and the entire team at the National Partnership for New Americans for making this conference possible. Despite our continued pandemic posture, NPNA has moved mountains to ensure that this conference is safe, flexible, and accessible to the broadest audience possible. And to this year’s co-hosts and conference organizers — thank you very much for your efforts and support.
It is an honor to be with everyone today. USCIS recognizes and honors the vital role that immigrant-serving organizations across this country play in uplifting and safeguarding our immigrant communities.
USCIS sees this time as a moment for us all to reset and refocus. We are committed to ensuring that our fiscal and operational health are chief among our many priorities under new leadership. A healthy USCIS – one that is fiscally and operationally sound – is critical to supporting an immigration and naturalization system that can efficiently and effectively deliver services and benefits to applicants and beneficiaries.
And since January of this year – USCIS has committed to doing just that. We have been hard at work over the past 9 months to operationalize and solidify the Biden-Harris Administration’s vision for immigration—to break down barriers and promote access to immigration benefits and services for all who are eligible and seek them.
These policy priorities are expressed in several executive orders, proclamations, and policy directives that seek to: One, promote full and fair access to our legal immigration system; Two, acknowledge the contributions that immigrants make to our society; Three, embrace our humanitarian responsibilities as a nation; And four, encourage those who are eligible to take advantage of the benefits of citizenship.
As we reset, USCIS is focused on ensuring that: We are processing requests in a timely manner; Making tools and resources available to people who are navigating the immigration process; and Meeting communities where they are to talk, listen, and engage in diverse and creative ways – as we are notably doing today!
As we march towards fulfilling these goals, as well as new and evolving priorities, we realize that it is equally important to work towards restoring trust and confidence in USCIS and the naturalization process. At the heart of this effort is a whole of government approach to do just that: Break down barriers to the naturalization process through policy changes and operational means; and Promote naturalization and the importance of U.S. citizenship through outreach and promotion, understanding that our goal is to strengthen integration for new Americans.
USCIS is driving this effort through policy and operational changes that we are making internally but also in partnership with 11 federal agencies who are member of an interagency Naturalization Working Group that USCIS chairs. Together, we developed a strategy for promoting naturalization and integration for new Americans that was released by the White House in July. This working group is building capacity for new and expanded partnerships, and implementing a robust public engagement strategy with federal, state, and local partners, community-based organizations, networks, and businesses.
In addition to this, USCIS has sought feedback about how to remove barriers to accessing immigration benefits and services across all avenues. As we work to promote naturalization, we are equally committed to ensuring the process is accessible, and that applicants understand the process and its many benefits. We recognize that accessibility inherently includes affordability. Simply put: being able to naturalize should not be based upon one’s wealth, period. We know that naturalization allows applicants and their family members to more fully participate in life as citizens of this great country, empowered with the many rights and responsibilities that the title ‘citizen’ confers.
There’s a reason why ‘citizenship’ is the first word in the name of our agency. While naturalization is the end goal – U.S. citizenship is a journey and USCIS is committed to ensuring that people can embark on this journey by successfully naturalizing in a timely and efficient way. USCIS has sought feedback about how to remove barriers to accessing immigration benefits and services across all avenues.
In the Spring, we issued a Request for Public Input to hear directly from the public. I’m so very glad to say that as part of this effort, USCIS received approximately 7,400 comments from all corners of the country. We are actively reviewing those comments and I am pleased to say that many of the ideas that were raised are things we have already tackled. Other recommendations solidified ideas we were already exploring. And there were also new ideas raised that we are now actively conducting research on and considering.
Ensuring timeliness entails providing good customer service, which I believe is a vital function of USCIS. That starts with our ability to process cases in a timely and efficient manner. Every single applicant who seeks a benefit from USCIS is entitled to an answer – be it yes or no – in a reasonable amount of time, depending on the complexity of the request. Quite simply, that is what a functioning and healthy government looks like – an agency that effectively and clearly responds to requests and questions from the people it serves in an expeditious manner. That is what USCIS will strive to do.
To provide good customer service and public outreach, we are fully committed to using 21st century tools to improve agency efficiency and enhance customer service. We have a host of online self-help tools to better serve applicants and beneficiaries, such as our new online naturalization eligibility tool and redesigned naturalization application webpage.
Let me also be clear: I recognize that there is more for USCIS to do. Nowhere is that clearer than when it comes to processing delays and backlogs. It will take time to fully realize success in this area.
As current events demonstrate, more and more is being demanded of USCIS and when called to serve, this agency will respond swiftly and appropriately to meet the moment upon us. This is especially true in the case of Operation Allies Welcome. USCIS is committed to efficiently and humanely resettling tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who served honorably alongside American forces.
That said, new policy and operational changes have allowed USCIS to make significant strides in addressing our COVID-related front log, backlog, and scheduling constraints.Since January 2021, USCIS has been able to reduce the number of pending naturalization applications by more than 165,000. We have also cut pending ASC appointments from a high of 1.4 million in January to approximately 179,000 today. We have made great headway in addressing our intake processing backlog at USCIS lockboxes. In January, we had more than a million cases waiting to get processed. By July, we fully eliminated what had been coined a “front log.” And since June 2020, we have completed over 93,600 video interviews for naturalization applications, allowing us to return to pre-pandemic processing levels for naturalization.
I also recently appointed Dan Renaud, a seasoned civil servant with decades of experience to lead an agency-wide effort to address processing delays and backlogs. We will continue to use all available policy and operational improvements to reduce both the number of pending cases and overall processing times.
USCIS is also focused on its work to promote immigrant integration. Integrating people into our nation, as quickly as possible is the right thing to do for our country, and that starts with us giving people what they need: status and the ability to work in a lawful way.
Last month, USCIS announced a total of $10 million in grants to 40 organizations that prepare permanent residents for naturalization and life as U.S. citizens. These grants also aim to promote prospective citizens’ integration into American civic life. We anticipate that approximately 25,000 aspiring citizens will receive citizenship preparation services as a result of these awards.
We also offer tools and resources to help immigrants integrate into life in the U.S., such as “Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants.” We will continue to look for ways to grow the impact of this grant program, including by sharing best practices we learn from our grantees and by finding ways to partner with others who provide naturalization and integration services, including many of the organizations who are here today.
I’d like to conclude with a couple of thoughts that I feel are often overlooked when discussing immigration but are certainly appreciated by the leaders gathered here today. The first is that when someone becomes an American citizen or receives another immigration benefit, not only does that help the individual, but it benefits us all. The work we do is ultimately in service to fulfilling the promise of immigration and naturalization that Congress set out for us.
The other point is that, while we do grant benefits to foreign nationals, the vast majority of our work is serving U.S. citizens who want to be with their families, and U.S. businesses that need talented employees. Again, this underscores the fact that the work that we do every day is of vital importance to the wellbeing of our nation.
As the new Director of USCIS – an agency that naturalized my own parents – I am committed to carrying out our work with this in mind. All too often, immigration is painted as an issue of us vs. them. When really, our immigration system is about all of us working together to strengthen our nation now and for the future.
Thank you for allowing me to join you today. I and USCIS very much look forward to working with you in the coming months and years.