Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Immigration chief outlines his priorities

Alejandro Mayorkas, a veteran federal prosecutor, is the director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Among other things, Mayorkas’ agency grants immigration and citizenship benefits, manages the process that allows people from other countries to work in the United States and helps administer the E-Verify system, which helps employers verify whether their newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States.

Mayorkas oversees an agency with a $3 billion annual budget and 18,000 employees and contractors working at more than 200 offices worldwide. He previously served as the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California. President Barack Obama nominated him to his current position in April 2009, and the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him in August of that year.

Mayorkas spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by phone recently about his agency’s processing times for permanent residency applications, Georgia farmers’ concerns with the H-2A guest worker program and E-Verify’s accuracy. His answers were edited for brevity.

Q: Tell me what you view as your top priorities as director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

A: I think my priorities reflect how varied and full our mission is. First and foremost, we have the responsibility of helping safeguard our nation’s security and protecting the immigration system. And so, always looking to enhance and strengthen our fraud detection and national security responsibilities is a key priority of mine and has been since I first started.

Secondly, as I am sure you are aware, we are a paper-based agency. The significant majority of applications and petitions we receive are in paper form, and then we move the paper around throughout our agency and work with a not-the-most-up-to-date set of computer systems. We are under way in transforming from a paper-based agency to an electronic one. That is the future of our agency, and it is a very significant priority as well.

This agency has tried to accomplish that transformation before [and] has not succeeded. And now we have designed a system and are in the last stages of testing the first phase of it, so we are really very excited about that.

Q: What is USCIS’ average turnaround times right now for permanent residency and citizenship applications? And can USCIS do better in these areas? And, if so, how?

A: Right now on the application for permanent residency, our average processing time is four months, which is a dramatic improvement over years past. What we are really focusing on now -- given our low processing times -- is not necessarily accelerating them but rather ensuring the quality of the underlying adjudications, making sure our adjudications are of the utmost quality, that we apply the law consistently and fairly.

Q: In Georgia, farmers here have complained the H-2A guest worker program is too costly and full of red tape. What is USCIS doing to improve this program?

A: I think some of the difficulties that we have heard are with respect to the division of labor amongst different federal agencies that touch the H-2A visa process. Remember, this is a process that we are involved in, that the Department of Labor is involved in, that the Department of State is involved in. I think some of the concerns are more structural with respect to the program and perhaps they can be addressed by legislation, but they are not necessarily -- from what we hear -- concerns with how we adjudicate the cases and process them.

Q: Speaking of legislation, what is your position on Rep. Jack Kingston's proposed Better Agriculture Resources Now Act -- it’s HR 3443. This would overhaul the H-2A program.

A: I’m familiar with the legislation, but I am not in a position to comment on it.

Q: Georgia's new anti-illegal immigration law -- it’s House Bill 87 -- requires many more private businesses to use the E-Verify program. How accurate is E-Verify, and does it have the capacity to accommodate many more businesses from Georgia?

A: The E-Verify program is extremely accurate. When it vets an individual who represents him or herself as work-authorized and that individual is in fact work-authorized, I believe its accuracy rate is over 99 percent. ... It is very accurate in verifying a work-authorized individual as work-authorized.

We are always working to improve the program in capturing efforts to commit identity fraud, something that the program was not really designed to address. But we have made tremendous improvements there.

The program has the capacity to receive more queries than it currently receives on a voluntary basis. Should E-Verify become mandatory nationwide, it would certainly require structural changes


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