“I could lose my job.” This is the immediate concern for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are enduring extraordinary delays while the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processes their work permits or other benefits.
It seems like everyone relying on the agency for their legal presence in this country is experiencing a delay in service, from legal permanent residents waiting for their green card renewal, to DACA recipients checking online for their work permit approval, to engineers in high-tech industries applying for an H-1B visa extension.
For example, the typical processing time for H-1B extensions historically ranged from two to four months. Currently, it’s not unusual to see petitions still pending after eight months from the date of filing.
The delays are more than an inconvenience.
The impact on individuals’ lives is grave. Many can fall out of legal status and lose their jobs. Their medical benefits for themselves and their families may be put on standby. They can miss travel opportunities and sometimes cannot process other documents such as driver’s licenses. Companies may spend more money while waiting for highly qualified individuals to join the workforce.
Immigration attorneys are complaining that the USCIS is not being open about the actual processing times or transparent about the reasons for the delays. The agency has also not articulated a plan to release regular, timely and accurate data.
USCIS users are relying on anecdotal accounts to calculate prospective response times and are posting about their experiences on social media.
In Arizona, some observers believe the worst delays were experienced by people who filed documentation with the agency between February and May 2016, although some cases filed later are still experiencing delays.
The delays have prompted the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) to publish formal and public complaints to USCIS.
“USCIS needs to ensure that these delays are caught up as a priority,” says Karina Ruiz, president of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition. “People’s livelihoods are at stake. Employers can terminate DACA-DREAMers’ employment, thus leaving them without any way of paying their rent or food. Our driver’s licenses expire with our Employment Authorization Document (EAD), the work permit. We will be forced to drive with an expired license to go to school.”
Immigrant rights leaders say that in response to the current delays and systemic problems, the USCIS must offer a way to extend work permits.
“We are also experiencing other types of problems like the case of a young DREAMer who had to go and get fingerprints taken twice because the system didn’t show she went the first time,” Ruiz says.