The Biden administration has announced three key measures to help combat a rising US visa and immigration application backlog that has left millions of people in limbo. A senior official at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said: “The backlog of applications has crippled our ability to effectively process them in a timely fashion. That needs to change.”
One of the measures will see United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) expand the number of US visa and immigration applicants who can pay extra fees to have their applications processed more quickly. The new measure would allow for faster work permit renewals and more, according to the immigration agency.
In recent years USCIS, which is funded entirely by US visa and immigration application fees, has struggled with an application bottleneck and processing delays, which were largely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With global travel brought to a standstill and in-person interviews suspended, immigration cases put on hold started to soar.
9.5 million pending applications
According to official USCIS figures, as of February 2022, the agency was reviewing 9.5 million pending US visa and immigration applications. This represents an increase of 66% when compared with the end of the 2019 fiscal year.
The growing case backlog has increased processing times significantly, which has had an impact on asylum seekers, green card applicants and would be US citizens, who have found themselves trapped in the US immigration system for months or even years. This has seen many lose their jobs, driving licenses and any source of income.
The director or USCIS, Ur Jaddou, said: “USCIS remains committed to delivering timely and fair decisions to all we serve. Every application we adjudicate represents the hopes and dreams of immigrants and their families, as well as their critical immediate needs such as financial stability and humanitarian protection.”
It’s understood that the expansion of premium processing will come into effect within 60 days of the measure being announced on March 29. Premium processing will be expanded gradually, starting with work-based green card applicants for multinational executives or managers and professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.
The senior USCIS official said that the phased expansion of premium processing would ensure that other applications are not delayed by expanding premium processing. “We can’t just shift all our resources to premium filers, while everybody else suffers,” the official said.
Temporary immigration relief
Meanwhile, another new measure will provide temporary relief to immigrants affected by work authorization delays by extending the period of automatic work permit extensions for those who apply for a renewal.
Under current US immigration rules, most work permit holders applying for a renewal are eligible for a 180-day extension if their authorization to work lapses.
However, according to USCIS figures, many immigrants are forced to wait longer for their work permit renewals, in some cases beyond 10 months.
The senior USCIS official said: “We’re regularly unable to adjudicate these renewals, not just by the expiration date, but by those 180 days past the expiration date.”
More caseworkers and improved processing technology
The third measure being brought in by USCIS will see the hiring of more caseworkers and improving processing technology to meet new timelines for adjudicating applications. USCIS believes it can meet the new timeline by September 2023, despite the agency having several thousand job vacancies currently.
It’s understood that USCIS will instruct caseworkers to prioritize requests for temporary work programs such as the H1B visa and H2A visa for agricultural workers, and adjudicate them within two months. Meanwhile, requests for work permits, travel documents and temporary status extensions will be reviewed within three months.
The backlog of US visa and immigration applications is part of a broader bottleneck that has hit the immigration system. The Department of Justice (DoJ) is currently dealing with 1.7 million immigration court cases of immigrants facing deportation.
Meanwhile the Department of State (DoS) is currently faced with a backlog of over 400,000 immigrant visa applicants awaiting interviews at US consulates.
Vow to reduce backlogs
The Biden administration has promised to reduce the backlogs, which it has partly blamed on Trump-era US immigration policies that cut legal immigration routes and placed more immigrants in deportation proceedings.
USCIS has made several bureaucratic changes to help speed up processes, but it still mainly relies on a paper-based system that is slow and onerous.
Congress recently passed a massive spending bill earlier this month, with USCIS receiving more than $400 million to help combat processing delays and application backlogs.
Biden recently asked Congress to give USCIS another $765 million in fiscal year 2023 to finance the continued backlog reduction effort.
Co-founder of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), Conchita Cruz, described the USCIS’ proposal to prolong automatic work permit extensions as a ‘huge victory’.
She said: “This extension will not only help ASAP members, but will benefit asylum seekers, other immigrant workers, as well as their employers and the communities that rely on their work as doctors, construction workers, truck drivers, software engineers and more.”
Meanwhile, the top lawyer for USCIS during the George W. Bush administration, Lynden Melmed, said: “USCIS’ recent announcement of new measures shows that the agency recognizes the urgency of its case backlog and processing crisis — and its humanitarian impact on applicants and economic consequences on US employers.”
“At a time where every company is struggling to find workers, it is rubbing salt into a wound to have to terminate a worker because the government can’t process a four-page application in over a year,” Melmed added.
The senior USCIS official said: “It’s pretty unprecedented for the director of USCIS to say to the entire agency, to the entire workforce, ‘our processing times are too long, it’s inhibiting us from delivering on our mission and so here are the goals that the entire agency is going to pursue and is going to achieve’.”
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