Impact of COVID-19 and Resource Limitation On the USCIS

When people apply for a visa, work permit, or green card, they expect the process to take some time, not their entire lifetime. Unfortunately, waiting months or even years for an application response has become the norm in the U.S immigration system.

“Unfortunately, extreme delays in immigration processing by the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) causes backlogs upon backlogs,” says immigration attorney Brandon Ritchie of Ritchie Reiersen Injury & Immigration Attorneys.  “Getting out of the backlog has become an almost impossible task.”

To combat this, the USCIS is taking steps to minimize caseloads and processing delays. The agency says this will help ensure that applicants and petitioners receive fair and efficient treatment.

Factors That Contributed to the Increase in Immigration Service Delays

#1. The COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak had an impact on the U.S economy in many ways. Many companies and organizations had to shut down or change their operational pattern to stop the virus from spreading. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services was no exception, closing all of its offices on March 18, 2020.

Some emergency services continued their operations wherever possible. However, non-emergency in-person services, which are essential for many immigration processes that need an in-person interview, did not operate until June 4, 2020. Not only did it cause a massive backlog of cases, undoubtedly causing delays, it also worsened the developing financial crisis at the agency.

#2. Financial Crisis

The already developing financial crisis at the agency is due to resource limitations resulting from the Trump administration. Due to a USCIS funding crisis, severe delays in producing and distributing documents occurred, generating issues for employees, employers, and lawful permanent residents.

The delay is due to USCIS reducing its capacity to produce secure documents following the termination of a contract with a third-party company that assisted in their printing. The USCIS stopped hiring due to the financial crisis; they could not hire new contractors to help restore lost capacity.

As a result, USCIS cannot produce or print secure documents such as green cards and Employment Authorization Documents on time (EADs). The financial document production delays cause serious, practical challenges for American corporations and immigrants entitled to approved benefits.

The Impact Of the Immigration Service Delays On the Economy

Employers will need to require immigration processes that enable quick employee onboarding. This will help bring new employees on board while also allowing for the flexibility vital in modern business practices. In addition, onboarding changes will help provide predictability and proper planning.

Unfortunately, delays in immigration processing can add weeks or months to an already complex process. As a result, employers will need to change their business plans and postpone initiatives. Organizations suffer when employers encounter considerable and unnecessary processing delays, and the overall effect can significantly hinder economic growth.

Actions the Administration and Congress have Taken to Tackle the Delay

The administration and Congress are well aware of the consequences of such delays. Finally, both Congress and the Biden administration took steps to address the issue when Congress passed the Omnibus Appropriations Bill On March 15, 2022.

The bill includes over $200 million higher in funding for USCIS than the previous fiscal year. USCIS will most likely use some of the funds to reduce its case backlog and expand its workforce.

Furthermore, the USCIS has set goals to improve efficiency and reduce burdens in the legal immigration system. The set goals include the following:

  • Reducing case backlog
  • Adding extra types of forms to premium processing, and
  • Working to enhance access to Employment Authorization Documents (EAD) on time

Backlog Processing Reduction

USCIS is setting new internal cycle time goals to help the agency minimize its pending caseload. Cycle time goals are internal measures that govern the USCIS backlog reduction efforts and influence the time the agency processes cases.

As cycle times increase, processing times will also increase, resulting in faster decisions for applicants and petitioners. To meet these new goals by the end of FY 2023, USCIS will increase capacity, improve technology, and expand the workforce.

Internally, USCIS uses a metric known as cycle times to track the number of pending cases in their backlog. A cycle time is the number of months it takes pending Cases for a given form to wait for a decision. The operational divisions of USCIS use cycle time to determine the progress of USCIS in reducing its backlog and overall case processing timeframes.

Expanding Premium Processing

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced a final rule that matches premium processing regulations with the USCIS Emergency Stopgap Stabilization Act. The DHS rule arranges the premium processing fees and decision deadlines by Congress.

Premium processing is a faster judgment service that is now only accessible to petitioners who file Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker. Certain employment-based immigrant visa petitioners who file a Form I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers) can also use it.

The final rule of DHS expands the types of forms that will be eligible for premium processing, including :

  • Form I-539 (application for nonimmigrant status extension or change).
  • Form I-765 (authorization to employment application) and ;
  • Extra Form I-140 classification.

In the fiscal year 2022, USCIS plans to begin implementing premium processing availability of Forms I-539, I-765, and I-140 gradually. USCIS intends to start the gradual implementation process by expanding premium processing eligibility to Form I-140 filers seeking:

  • EB-1: classification of an immigrant as a multinational executive or manager.
  • EB-2: classification of an immigrant as a member of professions with advanced degrees or exceptional ability requesting a national interest waiver.

Improving Access to Employment Authorization Documents (EAD)

USCIS is still working on a temporary final rule called “Temporary Increase of the Automatic Extension Period of EAD for Certain Renewal Applicants.” The USCIS has eased many EAD processes in recent months.

Increasing the validity periods of certain EADs and granting quicker work authorization renewals for healthcare and childcare employees are among the EAD processes. The temporary final rule aims to build on this success by ensuring non-withdrawal of work authorization status of some persons while their applications are ongoing.

Final Thoughts

Clearing the backlogs will help individual immigrants, their families and U.S employers, get back on track. Shrinking the backlogs and reducing the processing times will go a long way in boosting the economy while also restoring the credibility and integrity of the immigration system.