Nationwide, millions of families, businesses, and individuals applying for immigration benefits are waiting longer for USCIS to process and approve applications and petitions. Based on previously available USCIS data, in 2014, an average case took about five months to process. In 2020, an average case took more than nine months. Those extra months of waiting halt business operations, keep families separated, and jeopardize lives.
Many factors can slow down a case, including inefficient processing, understaffing, and changes in policy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the last administration, USCIS implemented many new policies designed to restrict legal immigration and delay processing. For example, one policy required USCIS officers to conduct duplicate reviews of past decisions, adding unnecessary work to each case. Another example was the imposition of a fingerprinting requirement for certain I-539 applicants. While the current administration has made some helpful changes, the pandemic has contributed to continued slowdowns. For example, from March through July 2020, USCIS closed its offices for interviews and biometrics appointments, creating a backlog, especially for biometrics appointments. Many applications, like I-765 applications for Employment Authorization Documents (EADs), cannot be adjudicated before biometrics are taken.
Between FY2017 and FY2019, USCIS’s processing times for all petitions and application form types rose more than 37 percent. The dramatic increase in processing times occurred despite a 10 percent drop in cases received by USCIS from the end of FY2017 to FY2019. USCIS processing times have continued to rise since the start of the pandemic.
Processing times for common form types illustrate just how dire the situation is: all I-539 applications increased 250 percent (from about three months to 10 months) in the last four years; family-based I-485 adjustment of status applications increased 67 percent and N-400 naturalization cases increased 47 percent. I-765 employment authorization documents until recently took about four to six months to be approved. Now they take nine to 10 months and special expedited requests are near impossible to obtain because USCIS is strictly enforcing its expedite criteria.
While there is little that an applicant or an immigration attorney can do to speed up the processing of a case, applicants can sue the government to act through the mandamus process. But litigation is of course timely and can be expensive.