Delays in immigration filings hurt US companies

Delays in immigration filings hurt US companies
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As a business immigration attorney, I work on a daily basis with U.S companies and employees who share with me the immigration and business challenges they face. Such as, development organizations in Silicon Valley on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence; manufacturing companies in the heartland that are the economic backbone in their towns; entrepreneurs and innovators who have a vision and drive for the “next big thing;" and hospitals in urban and rural areas that supply health care in underserved communities. 

I work with these employers in order to facilitate access to talent in a very tight job market. I constantly hear how challenging it is for them to use the legal immigration system to meet their staffing needs due to the increasing unpredictability and extreme processing delays of the legal immigration system

Day-after-day,  companies and their employees face lengthy processing times for their immigration filings. This isn't because they made errors or are ineligible for the immigration category, but because a government agency is not meeting deadlines and is putting their businesses and livelihoods at risk. 

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These delays do not just affect businesses — families and applicants for humanitarian relief are also seeing unprecedented delays in the processing of the immigration applications that they have filed with the government, leading to wage loss and the trauma of lengthy family separations.   

The severe impact that these delays have on many companies and individuals is the reason that today I am on Capitol Hill, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, as it calls administration officials to account for the crisis-level delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

I am here today on behalf of the more than 15,000 immigration lawyers who represent millions of individuals, families and businesses that are experiencing the same delays caused by government inefficiency.  

We know this issue is unprecedented and systemic because AILA has analyzed USCIS’s own data and the numbers show that nearly every immigration category is delayed. USCIS’s overall average case processing time surged by 46 percent from fiscal 2016 to 2018 and by 91 percent from fiscal 2014 to 2018. 

In fiscal 2018 as compared to 2014, the 94 percent of form types that USCIS processed was much slower. These applications ranged from employment authorization to petitions for humanitarian protection for human trafficking victims. USCIS’s overall backlog of delayed cases exceeded 5.69 million in fiscal 2018, a 69 percent increase over fiscal 2014. 

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These processing delays have damaging consequences that affect millions of individuals, families, and American businesses throughout the nation:

1. They restrict U.S. businesses’ ability to hire and retain essential workers, plan operations and remain competitive globally, impairing their business and harming the American workers they employ. 

2. They also weaken the ability of American universities to attract talented foreign students, thereby undermining the higher education system and U.S. global competitiveness. 

3. Those seeking humanitarian protection, including asylum seekers and survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence, have an increased risk of harm. 

4. They prolong or even trigger the separation of families, including those with U.S. citizen spouses and children and leave many families without income to afford necessities such as food and housing. 

5. They also stall the naturalization and full integration of aspiring U.S. citizens. 

One might think these delays are caused by a surge in immigration to the country. And, in attempting to defend its record of increasing processing times, USCIS attributes its case backlog in significant part to what it characterizes as high application rates and limited resources. However, the data shows that to the contrary, in fiscal 2018 the agency’s application receipt rates significantly declined, its budget grew, and yet its case processing times still increased by 19 percent.

In fact, the evidence shows that it is the agency’s own inefficient policies and procedures that are the key drivers of these delays. For example, USCIS reversed many years of prior practice by instituting a new policy requiring its officers to re-adjudicate extensions of previously processed petitions, even where no facts had changed in the filing. 

We have seen spikes in unnecessary Requests for Evidence — often seeking unnecessary or previously provided information — that freeze case processing and waste USCIS officers’ time and resources. Under a new and unprecedented policy, every employment-based green card applicant now needs to appear for an in-person interview at a local USCIS office, even where USCIS officers themselves deem those interviews unwarranted. And the list goes on. 

Unnecessary procedural steps such as these have the effect of sand being thrown into the gears of a machine: They are grinding the legal immigration system to halt despite Congress’s clear intent that USCIS function as a service-oriented immigration agency that efficiently processes cases.

As I am telling Congress today, it is imperative that both USCIS and Congress act decisively to reduce delays and align the agency with its statutory mandate. USCIS should rescind policies that needlessly delay adjudications and divert finite resources away from the agency’s core function of service-oriented adjudications. The agency should also establish rigorous processes for forecasting the impact of proposed policies and practices, and measuring the impact of existing ones, on the case backlog. 

The reality that business and individuals face is that the crisis-level delays and backlogs mean peoples’ lives and our overall economic growth are suffering. This is not an ideological or partisan issue — it is a matter of good governance and of our government delivering efficient services to the businesses, workers and families that have paid for them. Our nation deserves a well-functioning immigration system that matches the vitality of our businesses and communities.

Marketa Lindt is an immigration lawyer and the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) for the 2019–2020 term.