In 2014, you could become a U.S. Citizen in less than six months after filing your application to naturalize. Now, you will have to wait 10 months. Similarly, those applying for adjustment of status (green card) will have to wait nearly a year, when it took about six months a few years ago. Across the board, since the beginning of the current administration, the processing times for all cases adjudicated by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (“USCIS”) have risen by about 46%. Ultimately, obtaining any immigration benefit in the United States can be a long, expensive, and difficult task. Lengthy processing times when a case is “out of the hands” of an applicant can cause devastating impacts on their livelihood. Inefficient immigration processes also erode public trust in government programs.
USCIS, from its inception in 2003, was intended to be a service-based agency that would provide tangible immigration benefits to immigrants seeking lawful status. Instead, over the years, USCIS has become an agency more akin to law-enforcement. While immigration benefits should be fair and accessible, more restrictive standards, tougher laws, and longer processing times have transformed the agency to become a barrier between immigrants and lawful status. Imagine having to wait months, or over a year, in line at the DMV to renew your license!
Processing times can vary greatly depending on the type of application and the service center processing the application. According to some reports, the average case processing time has increased by 91% in the last half decade. Even some of the most common forms, such as the N-400 (Application for Naturalization) and the I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status), have seen processing times increase by a magnitude of several months. The I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative), a gateway for family based immigration benefits, has risen from 6.8 months to almost 10 months.
Recent studies on government immigration data have revealed frustrating observations. For one, the large increase in processing times is coupled with a decrease in case receipts over the same time period. So, lengthy processing times cannot be entirely attributed to mere caseload. What then, is behind these months-long delays? Historically, changing agency policies have had the most impact on USCIS processing times. The current administration’s requirement of “extreme vetting” has created an “invisible wall” of red tape and bureaucracy. Furthermore, these vetting procedures have created unnecessary in-person interviews, eliminated deference to prior decisions, and are a significant factor in the increase of processing times.
Not only are long processing times inconvenient, they can be very harmful to the applicant’s life. It can mean waiting several months more for employment authorization, while needing to work to support a family. It can mean that American businesses will have trouble securing the workers they need. Vulnerable populations, such as domestic abuse victims and juveniles, can be caught in proceedings that threaten their safety. For some, close family members must remain separated from loved ones while waiting for the petition to be approved. These processing times are not simply numbers; they are the livelihood of many seeking a better life in the U.S. Forcing immigrants to wait an indefinite time for an uncertain decision is incredibly damaging to the credibility of the U.S. immigration system and its institutions.
Maybe, there is still hope for transparency and tighter congressional oversight. In early February of 2019, 86 congressional members penned a letter to the current director of USCIS, Lee Francis Cissna. In the letter, the members expressed concerns with the increasing processing delays on immigration cases. They demanded that USCIS disclose information about the causes and their proposed actions in order to adjudicate cases in a more timely manner. This discussion is at the forefront of U.S. political discourse, and interested parties should pay close attention to the trajectory of USCIS and immigration policies.
Immigration matters are complex and case-specific. If you, or anyone you know, have concerns about navigating the U.S. immigration system, please contact a knowledgeable and experienced immigration attorney.
Sources and further reading:
Check Processing Times
USCIS, “Check Case Processing Times”
Increased Processing Times
Immigration Impact, “USCIS Processing Times Get Even Slower Under Trump,” (2/4/2019)
Mother Jones, “Report: Immigration Applications Are Seeing “Crisis-Level” Delays Under the Trump Administration,” (1/30/2019)
American Immigration Lawyers Association, “AILA Policy Brief: USCIS Processing Delays Have Reached Crisis Levels Under the Trump Administration,” (2/12/2019)
How Processing Times are Determined
ImmigrationImpact, “How USCIS Calculates Processing Times and How It Could Be Improved,” (9/7/2017)
American Immigration Council, “How USCIS Estimates Application and Petition Processing Times,” (7/18/2018)
Immigration Impact, “USCIS Changes How Processing Times Are Posted,” (1/6/2017)
Congressional Letter to USCIS
American Immigration Lawyers Association, “U.S. Representatives Demand Accountability from USCIS,” (2/12/2019)