Muhammad, a member of a minority group persecuted in Pakistan, dreams of becoming a lawyer — specifically, an immigration lawyer so he can help people like himself.
The 28-year-old, who now works as a researcher at an Ivy League university, has been granted asylum — a stringent standard available to those who face persecution in their home countries because of their race, religion or political beliefs.
But Muhammad’s yearslong wait for a green card has upended his plans. He was accepted into law school for the fall of 2020, but he couldn’t afford it without in-state tuition, only available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. He has deferred enrollment the past two years, hoping his green card would be approved in time.
“I thought that I could be a good advocate for people who are going through the same process,” said Muhammad, who asked to be referred to only by his first name for fear of immigration repercussions.
With the April deadline to accept his spot for fall 2022 fast approaching, and more than a year after filing his green card application, Muhammad is still waiting — and he’s maxed out on deferrals.
“It’s affecting my career trajectory,” he said of the delay. “It has a financial and an academic repercussion on someone who’s really trying to make ends meet.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency responsible for processing requests for immigration benefits, has been plagued with backlogs and processing delays for several years, partly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For green card applications filed by people with asylum, the wait ranges from 25 to 52 months, or more than four years, according to the USCIS website.
USCIS Director Ur Jaddou pledged to tackle those long wait times. The agency has stripped away some of the previous administration’s layers of bureaucracy, such as eliminating duplicative fingerprinting requirements and easing work visa renewals.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed into law the fiscal 2022 funding legislation that includes $409.5 million for the primarily fee-funded USCIS, including money earmarked to tackle backlogs.
Relief may be coming, but changes have yet to be felt on the ground. And now, immigrants applying to become permanent residents after being granted asylum face “some of the longest delays among the broader immigrant population that is trying to adjust their status,” said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.
“The problem for them, I think, is worse than it is for other groups,” Cruz said. “In terms of what the stats are, it’s worse. The delay is longer.”
A persistent backlog
USCIS processed more than 570,000 applications for permanent residency in fiscal 2021, which ended Sept. 30. The majority of those were for foreign citizens applying to adjust their statuses through a family member or their employer.
While USCIS receives far fewer green card requests from people with asylum, a smaller population, the data shows that the agency processes those requests at lower rates relative to the number of incoming applications.
USCIS processed just 22,000 asylum-based green card applications last fiscal year and received nearly 45,000 new ones. That means USCIS received more than twice the number of those applications than it adjudicated last year, making it the green card category with the lowest processing rate.
This left a backlog of nearly 88,000 pending permanent residency requests at the end of last fall for people with asylum.
Jennifer Bibby-Gerth, senior managing attorney at Catholic Charities and a former USCIS asylum officer, began noticing delayed permanent residency applications for her clients with asylum in 2020.
“A few years ago, a typical amount of time to take was one year. Now I have cases pending more than two and a half, and there’s no decision yet,” she said.
The data bears this out. In fiscal 2019, USCIS processed more than 27,000 green card applications from people with asylum, more than it processed last fiscal year, while receiving fewer new forms. The agency wrapped that fiscal year with roughly 38,000 applications still pending, less than half of the current backlog.
For people granted asylum, lengthy wait times are more than an annoyance.
People without green cards or U.S. citizenship may not hold certain jobs in the military or federal government, enjoy in-state tuition at universities, or access certain loans or other local benefits, depending on their state of residence. They also can’t sponsor relatives still living abroad to join them in the U.S. on green cards.
Ama, a Syrian with asylum who asked to be referred to only by his last name for fear of retaliation against his family, said his recent request to refinance his home was denied because of his immigration status.
Ama applied for asylum in 2014 and was granted the status four years later. Now a professor in New England, he applied for his green card in 2019 as soon as he was eligible. His application remains pending nearly three years later. He also hasn’t seen his mother, who still lives in Syria, in more than a decade.
“All my life is pending right now,” he said.
Matthew Bourke, a USCIS spokesperson, said the agency “is still experiencing the downstream effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, USCIS “has implemented new policy and operational improvements to reduce both the number of pending cases and overall processing times” and is “actively filling vacant positions” following a hiring freeze, he said in a statement.
Recent funding from Congress is also “expected to improve processing times and reduce pending cases,” Bourke said.
Cruz said the long wait times don’t necessarily indicate malice or intent on the part of USCIS or the Biden administration.
“But unfortunately, the backlogs do harm immigrants. They do harm asylees,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re doing it on purpose or not.”
A ‘backlog for citizenship’
For people with asylum waiting for a green card, that backlog isn’t the only one they face.
Some may have initially been denied asylum by USCIS and later granted protection by an immigration judge, tacking on years to their cases as they navigate the Justice Department’s backlogged immigration court system.
Processing times for employment authorization documents have also grown in recent years, and asylum-seekers could wait up to a year for the agency to approve their work permit requests once filed.
Once granted asylum, they continue to face long waits for travel and work authorization documents while waiting for their green cards.
Wait times for refugee travel documents, which allow people granted asylum or refugee status to travel abroad, currently stretch past 13 months. And while employment documents are not required for people granted asylum to work legally in the country, they can be helpful when proving employment eligibility to businesses and when obtaining driver’s licenses.
The delays all compound the number of years these individuals must wait before they reach what, for many, is their ultimate goal: U.S. citizenship. Foreign citizens are eligible to apply for permanent residency one year after being granted asylum and for citizenship five years after their permanent residency application is approved.
However, the number of years spent waiting for these approvals doesn’t count toward that residency requirement.
“For individuals who have fled persecution, there is never going to be a full sense of security and safety until they can say that they’re a U.S. citizen and they have a new passport — a new country that they not only live in, but that also will hopefully protect them,” said Cruz. “The reality is that the backlog for asylees has created, basically, a backlog for citizenship.”
Ama, the Syrian professor with asylum, stressed that he loves the United States.
“I consider this country as my country. There’s a big American flag, really, in my yard,” he said, showing off the flag visible out his window during a video interview.
But his children, one of whom was born here, struggle to understand why the family aren’t citizens yet and can’t travel abroad as others do. All he wants, he says, is an answer from the agency on his case.
“I’m a human being. I’m not a number,” he said.