At last report (in November 2020, the last time IPO deigned to have a stakeholder engagement of any kind), the Investor Program Office at USCIS had a staff of 232 people. What are these people doing, especially now during the regional center program lapse when USCIS decided that “we will not act on any pending petition or application of these form types that is dependent on the lapsed statutory authority.” Are IPO staff busy making progress with the direct EB-5 inventory and I-829, or are they doing something else in or out of the office?
Before I share some inside information on this question, consider the workload facing IPO’s staff of 232 people. Current IPO management is unknown (former Chief Sarah Kendall having left back in November, and a replacement not yet announced), but if you were management, how would you allocate IPO’s staffing and fee revenue resources? What level of processing productivity would you expect?
The only official window into IPO productivity comes from quarterly reports with limited data published after months of delay on the USCIS Citizenship & Immigration data page. I chart these data reports to track trends in IPO resource allocation and productivity.
In my frustration at USCIS’s limited and delayed data reporting, I also welcome leakers: confidential sources within USCIS who can share information that the public should know. I will now share some recent I-526 information from a source that I cannot name but believe to be solid.
I-526 Data Leak: July 2021
As I look at these numbers, here’s what strikes me as significant.
More I-526 were filed in the last week in June 2021 than in the entire previous year and half. That shows strong demand for EB-5 at the $500,000 minimum investment, a high level of industry preparation for the Behring court win, and optimism about regional center program prospects.
I-526 adjudication volume was extremely low after 4th of July: only 48 decisions and 77 notices in 21 working days – in other words, fewer than 6 total actions per day on average, and just over 2 decisions per day on average. We’d feared that one consequence of regional center program lapse on June 30 could be IPO decision to move resources away from I-526 adjudication, and that appears to be happening, at least so far. In January to March 2021 IPO adjudicated 882 I-526, and I thought that was extremely low. But that was an average 14 decisions per working day, in addition to RFEs. And now they’re down to barely over 2?
USCIS reported in the 2019 Fee Rule that adjudicative “touch time” for I-526 is less than 9 hours per form on average. If that report is accurate, how few people must have been assigned to I-526 in July 2021, to result in an average of only 2 decisions and 6 total actions per working day? Can it be that with 232 people on staff, funded at least half by I-526 fees, that IPO had fewer than 10 people assigned to I-526 cases in the month of July? I have not been informed about IPO staffing allocation decisions, but feel that the public has a right to know whether a fee-funded agency is using fees to provide the paid-for service.
I have not been told yet how the I-526 inventory divides between direct and regional center cases, but by historical averages it’s possible that only about 1,000 direct I-526 remain to be adjudicated. IPO adjudicated that many cases per month in 2016-2018, and at least adjudicated that many per quarter until recently. But if July 2021’s productivity were the new normal, with only about 2-3 decisions per working day, then even 1,000 I-526 would take forever to process. I have not yet been given I-829 data or staffing data, so I can’t tell whether the I-526 loss is temporary, and whether it is balanced by gains for I-829. If 232 IPO staff are mostly not processing I-526, and not processing I-924, they must be doing something EB-5-related, I hope? (Sarah Kendall attributed part of the huge IPO productivity drop in 2019 to “temporary assignment of IPO staff to other agency priorities” — i.e. staff sent outside to work on non-EB-5 cases. That was an inexcusable use of EB-5 fee-funded resources, and I hope that’s not happening again now.)
I note that 2/3 of IPO’s actions in July 2021 were sending RFEs and NOIDs, supporting my anecdotal observation that IPO rarely decides a direct EB-5 I-526 these days without sending an RFE first – often, an RFE that basically requests I-829 evidence. This practice naturally slows the process and reduces volume of completions.
If, as USCIS claims, “We generally process cases in the order we receive them,” then we’d see a fairly tight date distribution in I-526 actions. The July 2021 data, with actions distributed over I-526 from 2015 to 2019, reinforces what we can also see in the USCIS Processing Times Report “Estimated Time Range”: that I-526 processing is hardly FIFO in practice.
I was not told whether IPO is still using the visa availability approach for I-526, even now with the RC program expiration already drastically reducing the active I-526 inventory. It would be interesting to know whether any/many of the older I-526 actions in July 2021 were on Chinese cases. I do note that most denials in July were on the oldest cases, reinforcing the intuitive sense that delayed adjudication means higher adjudication risk.
USCIS does not normally report withdrawals, but for public policy reasons we need to know how many people are choosing to exit the program, even after having made investments. I will continue to track this number with interest and concern.
The details reported in this post are a fraction of what we’d like and need to know about what’s going on behind the scenes at IPO. I am thankful for whatever I can get, and will continue to make periodic (probably, monthly) reports so long as I can keep my sources. I hope that public exposure can help to encourage accountability and performance at IPO. Going forward, IPO civil servants, please act like you are being observed and might be accountable to the public.
And for anyone at USCIS/IPO who sees this post, I welcome you to join my public-spirited leaker community. Reach out to me by phone or on Telegram at (626) 660-4030, and let’s chat. The list of areas where USCIS should but doesn’t have public transparency include IPO leadership, I-829 performance, IPO staffing allocation, IPO training, the country composition of the I-526 inventory, the distribution of I-526 receipts by regional center, reasons for increasing denial rates, and I-485 processing for EB-5 cases, to name a few priorities. I would love to hear and share confidentially whatever you can tell me in these areas, for the good of program integrity. And ideally: encourage leadership to start holding public EB-5 stakeholder meetings again, publish timely data for everyone on the USCIS website, and perform in a way that does not justify reproach and desperate measures to get basic information.
I am happy to see that leadership change is starting at the top anyway, with Ms. Ur. M. Jaddou now confirmed as USCIS Director. Her first statement this week sounds great: “As USCIS director, I will work each and every day to ensure our nation’s legal immigration system is managed in a way that honors our heritage as a nation of welcome and as a beacon of hope to the world; reducing unnecessary barriers and supporting our agency’s modernization.”