According to a senior US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official, the Biden administration will announce three measures on Tuesday to lessen a growing multimillion-case backlog of immigration petitions that has crippled the US government’s ability to process them in a timely manner.
The agency intends to increase the number of applicants who can pay additional fees to have their immigration petitions adjudicated more quickly, propose a rule to provide relief to immigrants waiting for work permit renewals, and set processing time goals, according to the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the measures before a formal announcement.
USCIS hears applications for work permits, asylum, green cards, US citizenship, and other immigration benefits, such as the temporary H-1B program for highly skilled foreign workers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
For years, the agency, which is mostly supported by fees, has grappled with application bottlenecks and processing delays. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially resulted in the suspension of most global travel, a decline in applications, and the suspension of in-person interviews and other services, exacerbated those concerns significantly.
According to agency data, USCIS was reviewing more than 9.5 million pending applications as of February, a 66 per cent increase over the end of the fiscal year 2019.
The expanding case backlog has significantly lengthened application processing delays, keeping many immigrants — from asylum seekers and green card applicants to would-be U.S. citizens — in months or years of legal limbo that can compel them to lose their employment, driver’s licenses, and sources of income.
Amongst some of the new measures implemented by USCIS is a rule to enhance “premium processing,” which allows qualified applicants to pay an additional $2,500 to have their cases reviewed expeditiously. Presently, the service is only available for select applications, such as H-1B petitions and some employment-based green card applications.
The regulation, which is set to go into effect in 60 days, will extend premium processing to additional employment-based green card applications, all work permit petitions, and requests for temporary immigration status extensions, allowing applicants to pay $2,500 to have their cases adjudicated within 45 days.
Premium processing will be phased in, beginning with work-based green card petitions for multinational executives or managers, as well as professionals with advanced degrees or “special aptitude,” who want to immigrate to the United States without having a job offer, as is generally necessary.
According to a senior USCIS official, the gradual rollout will guarantee that other applications are not impacted by the premium processing increase, which was authorized by Congress in 2020 when the agency was facing a fiscal crisis that threatened to lay off 13,000 staff.
USCIS is also releasing another rule to provide temporary relief to immigrants affected by work authorization delays by extending the term of automatic work permit extensions for individuals who request a renewal. The rule was just submitted for review to the White House. Most work permit holders who file for renewals are currently eligible for an automatic 180-day extension if their license to work expires.
Meanwhile, according to USCIS data, many immigrants are waiting for their work permit renewals for much longer than that, typically for more than ten months. The third option is for USCIS to hire more caseworkers and improve processing technology in order to meet increased timetables for adjudicating applications, which it hopes to do by September 2023. According to agency data, USCIS currently has several thousand employment openings.
Caseworkers will be instructed by the agency to try to adjudicate requests for temporary work programs, such as H-1B and H-2A visas for agricultural workers, within two months. Work permits travel papers, and requests for temporary status extensions or adjustments should be reviewed within three months.
Other applications, such as those for U.S. citizenship, DACA renewals, and green card requests for immigrants sponsored by U.S. family members or employers, should be adjudicated within six months, according to the new processing criteria.
The backlog of applications at USCIS is part of a larger snag in the immigration system. The Justice Department is now managing 1.7 million unresolved court cases of deported aliens, while the State Department is dealing with a backlog of over 400,000 immigrant visa applicants waiting for interviews at US consulates, which hindered operations throughout the pandemic.
The Biden administration has pledged to decrease these backlogs, which it links in part to Trump-era policies that reduced legal immigration and put more people in deportation proceedings. Although the USCIS has made procedural improvements to expedite processing, it still relies on paper records and forms.
USCIS received more than $400 million as part of a huge funding measure passed by Congress earlier this month to alleviate processing delays and application backlogs. President Biden requested Congress on Monday for an additional $765 million in the fiscal year 2023 to fund the backlog reduction effort.
Conchita Cruz, the co-founder of the Refuge Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), which works with over 280,000 immigrants who have sought asylum in the United States, termed USCIS’ plan to extend automatic work permit extensions a “great success.”
Lynden Melmed, USCIS’s senior lawyer under the George W. Bush administration, said Tuesday’s decision demonstrates that the agency acknowledges the seriousness of its case backlog and processing issue — and the humanitarian impact on applicants as well as the economic ramifications for U.S. employers.
Legal Disclaimer: This article is provided for information purposes only.
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