The First of Many Possible Virtual Service Centers
The new center marks the sixth location for USCIS staff to process visas, but it’s the first of its kind for the agency. The all-virtual location brings many benefits to applicants and workers. Most importantly, it’s a major step in overcoming the backlog that has continued to increase over the years, particularly since the pandemic.
Since the virtual center’s inception, the backlog has stopped its upward momentum and may be on a path to a downward resolution. Currently, the center isn’t quite virtual yet. However, the hybrid model is working well, and the goal is a complete shift to remote workers by the close of September 2024. Unlike the service centers in California, Nebraska, Vermont, Virginia, and Texas, the new center will staff remote workers only, although it will accept electronic and paper applications.
Visas Processed at the Virtual Center
Virtual staff will limit their focus to processing requests that typically have longer review times — humanitarian immigration relief. Those hired for this job will receive thorough training on screening and processing three main requests:
● U visa program requests for status for crime victims and domestic survivors who qualify under the Violence Against Women Act,
● Refugees requesting permission to bring their relatives into the country, and
● Waivers for undocumented immigrants to release their status as unlawful and become permanent lawful residents.
These requests can take close to five years before the government fully processes them, but some of those delayed requests are dangerous for the applicant. Devoting a virtual center to full-time processing of these urgent humanitarian visas reduces that wait time and takes the pressure off of other centers to prioritize these cases at the expense of others.
The Way of the Future?
Right now, USCIS staff must receive training on how to process every visa request, but there isn’t enough time for the average agency official to focus the attention each application deserves. As such, important requests like humanitarian aid end up in the backlog of cases. But when staff are dedicated to a specific visa request form, such as humanitarian aid, survivors of abuse living in fear can receive the help they need to get on with their lives as new immigrants.
The new center has been touted by proponents as one of the biggest steps toward freedom from domestic violence in years. Many immigrants stay with their abusers because they don’t have the legal authority to work. Humanitarian requests, processed quickly, give them access to programs and funds they need to find jobs and leave those dangerous environments.
The center’s nickname of HART stands for the Humanitarian, Adjustment, Removing Conditions, and Travel Documents Service Center. Staffing began in January and consisted of reassignments of 150 existing personnel, with plans to hire hundreds of new workers by the end of Fiscal Year 2024.
Even Under a Budget Crisis, Something Had to Be Done
Government agencies are notoriously understaffed and underfunded, and that included USCIS over the past few years. The pandemic caused the center to implement a hiring freeze because of the decline in revenue. Open positions were left vacant, with remaining employees forced to take on even more caseloads. The net backlog doubled by the end of 2021, causing thousands of immigrants to wait for their benefits, including H-1B visas, work authorization permits, and green cards.
USCIS’s request for fee increases came alongside the Biden Administration’s request for $865 million to fund the agency for FY2024. If approved, the funds from the increased fees will help update the infrastructure, which will allow the agency to potentially create more virtual centers. The fee increase is pending consideration of the $865 million request.
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