Lawmakers Target Rise in Immigration Application Backlog
Lawmakers on both sides of the congressional aisle agree that backlogs and lengthy processing times for immigration applications are a problem, though they diverged during a House subcommittee hearing on the cause.
That backlog at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services currently stands at 2.4 million cases as of May 2019, representing applications for a variety of immigration benefits such as H-1B specialty occupation visas, work permits, green cards, and citizenship. That’s resulted in mounting wait times for decisions on those applications, which advocates say are creating uncertainty for businesses to the detriment of the U.S. economy.
It’s the “largest net backlog since 2003,” when immigration adjudications “ground to a halt” in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, which took up the issue July 16.
It’s “more difficult than ever for qualified applicants to get immigration status,” she said.
“I am hopeful that we can as a Congress, as a legislative body,” support the efforts of USCIS officials “to make sure we are allowing the right people to become U.S. citizens and as many of the right people as possible to become U.S. citizens,” said subcommittee ranking member Ken Buck (R-Colo.).
Concern over processing delays has grown as those delays have continued to mount in the past few years. The American Immigration Lawyers Association recently issued a report saying those delays had reached “crisis” levels that needed immediate intervention.
GOP Blames Legalization
Despite sharing concerns about the impact of the processing delays, Republicans and Democrats split on where the blame for those delays should lie.
Buck was quick to say that immigration programs championed by Democrats are contributing to the USCIS’ inability to keep up with high demand.
That includes the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration initiative launched in 2012 to provide deportation protection and work permits to young, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, Buck said.
The Dream and Promise Act (H.R. 6), recently pushed through the House by the Democratic majority, would result in some 2 million additional applications for legal status, he said. The bill would provide legal status to an even broader population than DACA, as well as immigrants with other types of temporary status.
Democrats Target Trump
But Democratic subcommittee members said the delays in part are the result of Trump administration policies that they said have added red tape to the immigration benefits application process.
Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, also mentioned that part of the backlog is the result of additional scrutiny of the H-1B program, including reviewing petitions that had been reviewed and approved multiple times in the past. She said she hopes a bill she sponsored that recently passed the House (H.R. 1044), which removes per-country caps on employment-based green cards, will alleviate some of the difficulties faced by H-1B workers waiting for their green cards.
But USCIS officials said the backlog skyrocketed in fiscal year 2016 as a result of a jump in applications that’s common ahead of national elections and announced USCIS fee increases.
Unlike in prior years, that spike didn’t wane once the election was over and the fee increase had taken effect, said Michael Hoefer, chief of the USCIS’ Office of Performance and Quality.
Application receipt levels have leveled off as of FY 2018 and 2019, and completions were the “highest ever” in FY 2018, Hoefer said.