Delays reach 'crisis level' at citizenship and immigration services

President Donald Trump speaks in Kenosha, Wis.
President Donald Trump speaks at tool manufacturer Snap-on Inc. in Kenosha, Wis., in April 2017.
Susan Walsh | AP

Visa denials and processing delays have reached a "crisis level" at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices across the country, according to a new report from the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Immigration lawyers say the longer processing times for citizenship, green card and visa applications are taking a toll on families and businesses that are unable to make plans. They say USCIS has become an enforcement agency requiring additional interviews, evidence and notices to appear in court — a departure from past practice.

Wait times for naturalization, adjustment of status and certificates for citizenship from the Minneapolis-St. Paul USCIS office can range from five months to more than two years.

"The overall average case processing time surged by 46 percent over the past two fiscal years and 91 percent since fiscal year 2014," said Jason Boyd, the policy counsel to the lawyers association. "That case processing time increases substantially in fiscal year 2018 even as case volume receipt appeared, based on available data, to markedly decrease."

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Congress established the federal agency in 2002 as a service-oriented immigration benefits agency to adjudicate cases. But the American Immigration Lawyers Association says the analysis shows it is acting as another enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

Tammy Lin, an immigration attorney based in San Diego, said one of her clients, a pregnant woman who's a U.S. citizen applying for a green card for her husband was asked about travel history from 2012.

"There's definitely concerted effort by this administration to delve back into things that have no relevance in the family-based cases," Lin said, adding that questioning her client about travel history from years ago is an unusual move. "It has no pertinence to whether or not it's a real marriage case, and clearly it is; they're having a baby in the next few weeks."

USCIS officials say they've opened three new field offices, expanded 10 others and increased the workforce by 38 percent between 2012 and 2017 to alleviate the pressure.

In a statement, USCIS spokesperson Michael Bars said that the agency strives to adjudicate all applications and petitions as efficiently as possible. Delays can be attributed to various reasons, he said.

"The truth is that, while many factors relating to an individual's case can affect processing times, waits are often due to higher application rates rather than slow processing," he said. "That is why USCIS has implemented a range of process and operational reforms, hired additional staff and expanded its facilities to ensure its ability to adjudicate keeps pace with unprecedented demand for its services over recent years."

But lawyers of the association give partial credit for the decrease in case volume to a drop in interest. Foreign students and employees don't want to deal with the hassles and have decided against a move to the United States.

Additionally, lawyers say, holders of work visas like H1B and L1 — intercompany transfers from abroad — are having to start over rather than renew or extend their visas.

Matthew Maiona, an immigration lawyer in Boston, has worked with clients who've been denied work visas despite top qualifications. One had an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Another example was an individual who is educated at Kent State, [with a] masters in financial engineering," he said. "And this particular individual met all the requirements of the position, just like the prior one. And USCIS denied that application based on the fact they said the occupation didn't match what they believe it should be for that particular job."

The report recommends that USCIS rescind policies that have increased processing delays and enhance transparency by making more data public. It also suggests that Congress conduct oversight to ensure accountability.