Improving customer service and reducing case backlogs have been priorities for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Biden administration. In taking a moment to pat itself on the back, USCIS reported that it reduced its overall backlog by 15% for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2023. The numbers are a bit wonky and accordingly drew some criticism. For example, there were 10.9 million new case submissions, and USCIS completed more than 10 million pending cases. That sounds like a net gain of 900,000.

Later in the report USCIS explains what it meant by reducing the backlog. For the fiscal year ending September 2022, there were more than 5 million cases still pending beyond the targeted processing time. As of September 2023, that number was 4.3 million. USCIS has targets (processing time goals) for different case types. When cases languish beyond those targets, they are deemed part of the backlog. In looking only at cases in and cases out, yes, there was a net gain of 900,000 for last year, but USCIS was chipping away at those long-pending cases. That way, as time marches on, that pipeline will become smaller, so that more and more cases can be processed in real-time.

Statistics always create a game of fun with numbers. Yes, USCIS perhaps could have done a better job explaining its progress in more simple terms. At the same time, the agency is staying true to its commitment to improve the overall customer experience for the customers who fund the vast majority of its operations through filing fees.