US immigration agency in race to issue 280,000 green cards

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United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is under pressure to issue 280,000 employment-based visas before the end of the fiscal year. A record surplus of green cards available this year means that immigration officials face a race against time to issue all available green cards.


According to a Bloomberg report, more than 66,000 employment-based visas went to waste in 2021 as USCIS officials struggled to work through pandemic-driven backlogs and an unprecedented number of US work visa applications. USCIS is currently faced with an even bigger workload in 2022.

The US immigration agency said it is having to process 280,000 green cards in the current fiscal year, compared with 262,000 in 2021. However, USCIS said it is ‘well-positioned’ to issue all of the available visas before the fiscal year ends on September 30.


Labor shortage

The Bloomberg report claims that the record number of work-based green cards available could see an ‘infusion of newly mobile workers to help the US tackle an ongoing labor shortage’.

Unlike temporary work visas such as H1B visas and L1 visas, green cards enable foreign workers to switch between employers freely, without losing their US immigration status. 

The green card surplus could mean a faster resolution for thousands of Chinese and Indian immigrants who have been stuck in limbo for years because of per-country US visa caps.


Closures and limited capacity

The high numbers of employment-based visas that have been available over the past two years are a direct result of COVID-19 lockdowns and limited resources at US Embassies and Consular offices.

Many family-based visas that the US Department of State (DoS) did not process were carried over into the employment-based category the following year, which typically has a limit of 140,000 visas per year.

A USCIS official said: “The problem last fiscal year was massive barriers before we could even start working through green card applications.”

Barriers included a massive “frontlog” of unopened applications and a long queue of biometric appointments to collect fingerprints and applicants’ photographs that had accumulated with offices closed during the pandemic, according to the Bloomberg report.

USCIS has also struggled to work efficiently under a mostly paper-based system, according to a 2021 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.

Last year, the agency did eventually issue 180,000 green cards, which is more than a typical year, but still well short of the total number available.


Previous visa processing failures

Recently, a group of Chinese and Indian green card applicants sued USCIS in a federal district court in Washington after USCIS previously failed to process US visas before the fiscal year deadline.

The complaint argued that green card waste is a “self-made crisis” because the agency only counts visas as issued after a lengthy adjudication process.

A similar lawsuit brought by green card applicants last year in a bid to have their cases adjudicated was closed after a federal judge in Maryland severed the claims based on location on the eve of the fiscal year deadline.

Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said: “USCIS is definitely in a better place than they were in the previous fiscal year.”

“However, the public has yet to see data from USCIS that would show a significant improvement from the pace of the previous year and allay fears of green cards again going to waste,” she added.

“As of mid-June, USCIS had used significantly more visas than at the same point last year and was issuing twice as many on a weekly basis,” an agency spokesman said. However, the agency declined to disclose specific numbers on green cards issued to date.


Internal challenges

In order to tackle green card processing backlogs, USCIS has already redirected some staff resources from other US immigration services to process employment-based visas instead. The agency has also redistributed applications among field offices in order to spread workloads more equally.

Additionally, USCIS has used a “risk-based approach” to waive interview requirements and urged applicants to prepare to submit medical forms as soon as their applications are taken up. 

The agency has also encouraged others to transfer their applications from one employment-based visa category to another with lower demand where eligible, a process known as interfiling.


Afghans and Ukrainians

Although USCIS isn’t facing the same initial barriers this year as in fiscal year 2021, an influx of Afghans and Ukrainians seeking humanitarian relief and a staff vacancy rate of nearly 20% continue to present challenges.

“The agency is currently in the midst of a mass recruitment drive, aiming to fill 95% of vacancies by the end of the calendar year as part of efforts to address efficiency and reduce backlogs,” said USCIS Director, Ur Jaddou, at a recent conference. 

However, new staff members could spend weeks in training before they can begin processing applications.

Meanwhile, according to the CATO Institute, even if USCIS were to issue all 280,000 available visas, it would only put a ‘small dent’ in the green card backlog driven by annual per-country limits.

The CATO Institute said: “At the end of fiscal year 2021, about 875,000 approved petitions were waitlisted because of those caps. Workers stuck in backlogs for years also may not necessarily have their applications moved faster because USCIS is prioritizing processing as many pending cases as possible without regard to their filing date.”

A USCIS official said: “We want to get them all through the process as efficiently as possible.”

Bruce Morrison, former chair of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee and a lobbyist for the American Healthcare Association, said: “With fears of a recession looming, granting permanent residency to more workers promises to boost their earnings and productivity.” 

“When you move people from temporary visas to green cards, you can be sure that the American economy and working Americans will benefit,” he added. can help with US employment-based visas

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