Government processing times for many application types have grown over the past few years. Nationwide, millions of families, businesses, and individuals applying for immigration benefits are waiting longer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to process and approve applications and petitions.
Based on previously available USCIS data, in 2014, an average case took about five months for the government 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 government processing times, including inefficient processing, understaffing, and changes in policy due to the COVID-19 global 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. While the current administration has made some helpful changes, including to the noted policies, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to continued slowdowns.
The 2021 Annual Report of the USCIS Ombudsman indicates the backlogs are now at record levels. The pandemic forced the closure of all immigration field offices. Even since reopening, the field offices have been operating at limited capacity. The report also notes that USCIS cancelled roughly 280,000 interviews at the start of the pandemic. According to USCIS, approximately 7 million applications and petitions were pending as of March 31, 2021.
Other factors added to the backlog of cases. For example, many applicants quickly filed applications in late 2020 to take advantage of lower government fees. Furthermore, at the start of the new fiscal year, thousands of applicants filed at the same time to take advantage of visa number availability. This has led to a perfect storm of processing backlogs.
The government is looking into ways to resolve this issue. As the pandemic gets under control, this allows field offices to reopen to work through the backlog. Beyond reopening, USCIS also needs additional funding to process the millions of applications in its queue. The Biden administration has proposed $350 million in its budget to address the USCIS backlog. This advances the administration’s immigrant-friendly policies. It would also make the process smoother for immigrants of all backgrounds.