United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced plans to extend expiring US work permits by 18 months. Tens of thousands of US immigrants are set to benefit from the extension as USCIS struggles to clear lengthy backlogs and processes US work visa renewals.
The announcement, outlined in a temporary final rule that came into effect earlier this week, will prevent approximately 260,000 immigrants from losing their work authorization status over the next 18 months, while giving USCIS more time to tackle a backlog of US visa and immigration applications.
US immigrants applying to renew their work permits, who are normally eligible for an automatic 180-day extension, will instead be granted an automatic 540-day extension while their applications are pending, according to a USCIS statement.
Following the outbreak of coronavirus, USCIS has struggled to cope with an ever-growing backlog of US visa and immigration applications, with many services forced to shut down completely amid consecutive lockdowns. The problem has been further exacerbated by budget shortfalls, with USCIS relying mostly on visa and immigration fees for funding.
Fewer US visa and immigration applications throughout COVID restrictions brought USCIS to the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, visa processing delays have also hit US employers hard, who are facing difficulties recruiting workers. Now that restrictions have been lifted, US work permits are in high demand.
According to USCIS, visa and immigration delays have created a ‘grave situation’ for applicants who have subsequently lost their work authorization status while waiting for renewal.
In an official statement, USCIS said: “The work permit applications affected by the extension are largely made up of asylum seekers, certain immigrants seeking permanent residence and those trying to cancel a deportation order.”
According to USCIS data, the processing time for asylum applicants looking to renew work permits increased to 11 months in 2021 – up from approximately seven months in 2017.
During a Congressional hearing in April, USCIS director Ur Jaddou said that the agency had 8.5 million pending US immigration cases – including people looking to secure a US green card and American citizenship.
Jaddou said that more than half of all cases pending have taken longer than the agency’s normal processing times.
A USCIS official said: “We need time to get back to normal or better than normal on our processing times, and no one should lose their ability to work because we need that extra time.”
Employers will welcome extension
Vice president of US immigration policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, Jon Baselice, said: “Employers will welcome the announcement. Many companies with staffing issues have let good workers go simply because of these significant processing backlogs, exacerbating their workforce problems.”
Meanwhile, Jairo Umaña, an immigrant seeking asylum from Nicaragua, told The Washington Post: “This will take some of that pressure off, to be able to sleep a bit better at night. However, the change won’t solve all my related issues. For example, my driver’s license is tied to my work permit. My license expired when my work visa did.”
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