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Immigration agency backlog weighs on congressional offices

Schakowsky describes constituents calling staff ‘in tears’

People read an informational sign following a two-week closure of a USCIS field office because of an employee who may have been infected with the novel coronavirus in Tukwila, Wash., in March 2020.
People read an informational sign following a two-week closure of a USCIS field office because of an employee who may have been infected with the novel coronavirus in Tukwila, Wash., in March 2020. (Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images file photo)

Immigration lawyer Diana Bauerle spent weeks getting bounced around the bureaucracy of a U.S. immigration agency as she tried to renew work authorization documents for a home health care worker.

The agency had sought to automatically speed up processing for those types of renewals in December. But customer service sent her to one service center, which told her to send a written letter to another service center.

Fed up, and with her client about to lose the ability to work because of the agency’s processing delays, Bauerle did what thousands of people in a similar situation have increasingly done: She asked a member of Congress to help.

Member offices have fielded a growing pile of requests for help to speed their cases through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the backlogged agency that handles requests for visas and other benefits.

Some lawmakers say those immigration-related inquiries now constitute the bulk of their overall constituent casework. And the House has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars to address delays at USCIS, which have harmed immigrant workers as well as employers that depend on them during the ongoing labor shortage.

Bauerle, who also serves as a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s case assistance liaison committee, said the group is increasingly advising immigration lawyers to turn to Congress as a last resort.

Congressional offices have access to special channels and direct contacts at USCIS. In the health care worker’s case, the office of Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly submitted the request to expedite the work permit in late January under that new policy from December. Eight days later, the renewal was approved.

“It could not have happened without them,” Bauerle said.

Numbers grow

Lawmakers across the country and in both parties have heard from their districts about the USCIS delays.

“This is really causing hardship and frustration for constituents,” said Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky. “Often constituents are in tears on the phone with my staff.”

Effects of the delays were described during interviews with representatives from nearly a dozen congressional offices, including members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and their immigration caseworkers across the country.

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan said her office managed about 29 USCIS-related immigration requests in 2019, her first year in office. The number creeped up to 122 in 2020, the year USCIS shuttered in-person services because of COVID-19.

And last year, it spiked: Houlahan’s office handled 374 USCIS-related cases, and she said they are tracking for a similar amount this year.

Houlahan said she can always rely on a few people raising immigration issues during every in-person town hall she holds. “It’s a consistent raw spot in the conversations,” Houlahan said.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat from New York, said his office’s casework of USCIS-related matters has increased by roughly 85 percent in the last five years.

Espaillat is now bringing on a new caseworker dedicated to immigration to handle the workload. “I mean, people call me on my phone,” he said. “Everywhere I go, I get stopped for it.”

One House office said their USCIS-related casework in 2021 was more than triple what it was in 2020, while another reported receiving more than a dozen USCIS-related requests each day from constituents.

And as casework increased, so did USCIS response times to congressional inquiries, some offices said.

A caseworker for California Democratic Rep. Salud Carbajal said USCIS used to reply to requests from the office within two to three weeks, but now replies can stretch up to six weeks. But the caseworker added the agency will reply quickly when faced with urgent, life-or-death requests.

‘Cloud hanging over’

In a February letter, 47 House lawmakers, including Florida Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar, called for improvements to the USCIS Contact Center, which handles customer service requests from applicants.

Customers inquiring about their case statuses have experienced “extensive wait times, unreasonable callback windows, and are required to restart the process if their call is dropped, or they are not able to answer return calls from USCIS,” the lawmakers said.

Lawmakers and aides said most of the USCIS-related casework they receive are inquiries about delayed applications for work permits, family-based green cards and forms of humanitarian relief, like asylum.

Several said they hear from workers on H-1B specialty occupation visas who have applied for green cards but fear their children may “age out” of their applications before they are approved.

“People want to resolve those matters as quickly as possible. And for them to drag on in perpetuity, it leaves them with anxiety, and they have to go to work every day with that cloud hanging over them,” Espaillat said. “I think that that’s horrible.”

And the delays can reverberate beyond the individual families, the lawmakers and aides said.

Processing delays for employment authorization documents, for example, may not only leave individuals without income, but can also send American employers in a lurch when they have to suddenly take an employee off the payroll.

Rep. John Rutherford, a Republican from Florida and vocal proponent of stronger border security measures, lamented that foreign professionals working in his district on H-1B visas, who he described as “people who are trying to do this right,” are losing their jobs.

“We’re doing the best that we can do,” Rutherford said. “I can tell you there’s a tremendous amount of frustration right now.”

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Deborah K. Ross, whose district includes the so-called Research Triangle of major universities, stressed that work permit delays aggravate existing labor shortages for businesses in her district.

“Every different employer that I talk to talks about how they need skilled workers. So helping there also helps the businesses in my district and the businesses that come to the district,” Ross said. “It’s a combination of helping people who live here and who want to stay here — or their families to stay here — and helping the businesses who need these highly skilled workers to stay.”

Speeding up

For some offices, increases in immigration-related casework began during the Trump administration, which issued policies to ramp up scrutiny on visa applications. That slowed down processing, which was further slowed during the pandemic, when USCIS shuttered in-person services for several months in 2020.

Facing financial difficulties, the agency also implemented a hiring freeze, leaving it short-staffed to handle growing visa backlogs.

At a congressional hearing in April over the Biden administration’s budget request for USCIS, Iowa Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson expressed her frustrations to USCIS director Ur Jaddou.

“What measures are being taken to improve customer service for those who have followed the rules, they’re legally residing and working in Iowa, and they need to access those casework services?” Hinson asked.

Jaddou has pledged to make addressing immigration backlog a top priority.

Matthew D. Bourke, a spokesperson for USCIS, pointed to a number of efforts the agency has made in the past few months to shorten processing times, including by establishing internal goals and expanding fast-tracked processing services.

In May, USCIS released a rule to automatically extend some people’s work permits to up to 540 days, up from the previously 180 days, to give the agency more time to work through cases without forcing existing workers out of their jobs.

The agency is also working to fill 95 percent of current vacancies by the end of this year, Bourke said.

“USCIS remains committed to increasing access to eligible immigration benefits, breaking down barriers in the immigration system, and upholding America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve,” Bourke said.

Some congressional staffers say they’ve seen an improvement in recent months. The House Democratic aide whose immigration casework tripled last year said USCIS’ recent policy allowing automatic extensions has reduced the amount of work permit-related requests the office is receiving.

The staffer also said the agency started responding to congressional inquiries faster, beginning in early spring of this year.

“We might still be getting increased constituent calls about immigration issues, but at least this way, it’s not like we’re waiting three months, four months to actually get an answer for them,” the aide said.

And in the meantime, lawmakers and congressional staffers pledged to keep pushing the agency to speed up processing times. House Democrats proposed giving USCIS, which has been traditionally primarily funded with application fees, $683.3 million in fiscal 2023 — an increase of $273.8 million over current levels.

“Of course, we wish that USCIS would just take care of everything,” Ross said. “But we’re going to turn any trend in casework into an opportunity to effect public policy.”

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