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Asylum-seekers face delays on recent work permit applications

As an immigration agency clears out a backlog of applications, more recent requests languish

A participant holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony held for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services annual Independence Day celebration at a library in New York City on July 1.
A participant holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony held for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services annual Independence Day celebration at a library in New York City on July 1. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images file photo)

Yusuf Ali Sendil, a medical doctor who fled political persecution in Turkey, will lose his chance to be a resident at Rutgers University’s hospital in less than a month unless a U.S. immigration agency approves his work permit in time.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is required by regulation to process work permits for asylum-seekers such as Sendil within 30 days of receipt. But the specialist in treating psychosis and schizophrenia has been waiting since he filed his work permit request in May, with no substantive updates.

Sendil is one of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers waiting months more than expected for the backlogged immigration agency to approve their initial work permit requests, according to agency data shared with CQ Roll Call by the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.

Instead, Sendil said his would-be colleagues have had to cover his patients. “The hospital is already understaffed. They need health care workers, and they’re missing one now,” he said.

The data, which USCIS provided to attorneys as part of litigation over asylum work permit processing, shows the immigration agency’s compliance rate for the required 30-day time frame has plummeted this year.

During the last three weeks of February, 93 percent of the applications the agency processed had been pending 30 days or fewer. That fell to 68 percent in March, 41 percent in April, 21 percent in May, and then 6 percent in June and less than 5 percent last month.

The drop coincides with a court ruling in February, part of a long history of litigation on the issue.

The trend indicates the immigration agency has recently been prioritizing clearing out a backlog of work permit applications that have been pending the longest, which means more recent requests languish.

The vast majority of applications USCIS processed in the past three months had been pending for more than 120 days, according to the agency data.

As a result, the agency now faces a new wave of more than 77,000 pending work permit requests received within the past three months, according to the agency data.

Zachary Manfredi, the litigation and advocacy director of ASAP, warned that as new work permit applications outpace agency processing, this backlog of recent requests is likely to grow more over time.

“They’re not making any meaningful headway in decreasing the total number of pending applications and instead have just shifted toward focusing on the oldest applications,” Manfredi said.

“My worry is that we’re likely to see more and more delays, unless the agency decides to allocate more resources to processing or figures out some other solution that will get on track to abide by the legal requirements for processing all these applications within 30 days,” he said.

USCIS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the data.

Litigation backstory

Delays at USCIS have been widespread in recent years, affecting work permit processing and renewals not only for asylum-seekers, but also for green card applicants and other eligible categories of immigrants.

But the recent dip in compliance with the agency’s 30-day processing requirement on asylum-seeker work permits specifically coincides with ongoing federal court litigation over asylum processing.

The Trump administration in a June 2020 policy attempted to scrap the 30-day requirement, drawing legal challenges from immigrant advocacy groups, including a lawsuit from nonprofits CASA de Maryland and ASAP.

In September 2020, a Maryland federal judge ruled against the former administration and reinstated the 30-day requirement but limited that to members of those two organizations.

USCIS prioritized the requests per the court order, but it let others stall. ASAP, which does not charge dues, saw its membership balloon from roughly 5,000 members to 360,000, according to Conchita Cruz, the group’s co-founder and co-executive director. She estimated the organization had roughly 150,000 work permits approved for members during that time.

But in February, another federal judge struck down the Trump-era rule entirely and reinstated the 30-day processing requirement for all asylum-seekers. And several months later, Cruz said she started hearing reports from ASAP members that they had waited well past a month for their work permits.

Processing change

That February court ruling had a profound shift on how the agency processed the work permit applications, agency data shows.

According to the statistics, in October of last year, while still prioritizing applications from CASA de Maryland and ASAP members, USCIS reported that nearly all work permit requests from members of those groups adjudicated that month — 99.8 percent — had been pending two months or less.

But this past spring, the agency appears to have turned to longer-pending applications.

As of July 31, there were fewer than 2,500 work permit requests that have been pending more than 90 days, down from nearly 18,000 such applications as of the end of June.

Though the agency initially bumped up the number of permits being processed each month after the February court ruling, the raw number of asylum-seekers’ work permit requests processed each month appears to be on the decline.

The agency processed just over 31,400 applications in May, about 29,000 in June, and fewer than 26,000 in July.

Cruz said this recent decline indicates the government is not investing enough in processing these work authorization documents to comply with the required time frame.

“Whatever the government may say about what applications it’s processing, that it’s trying to address the backlog of non-ASAP, non-CASA de Maryland members, that may be true,” Cruz said. “But also, the actual number of applications being processed is lower, not higher, which is what it should be, because they should be putting more resources towards this.”

Worker uncertainty

The delays have left thousands of asylum-seekers — an inherently vulnerable population — without the ability to support themselves in the U.S., which creates uncertainty for those who were counting on the agency to follow its rules.

Asylum-seekers are already required to wait 150 days after the agency receives their asylum applications before they can even apply for a work permit, which can make any further delays financially crippling.

Without a work permit, some may be unable to get driver’s licenses, health insurance or other critical benefits on top of their unemployment. They also face a backlog in processing their overall asylum cases, compounding delays.

“They don’t have the ability to provide for themselves and their families and sometimes even get a driver’s license, any of these things that we kind of take for granted, for those of us who have work authorization,” said Amy R. Grenier, who focuses on asylum and border issues as policy and practice counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It just compounds the stress and trauma of an already stressful situation.”

Rickie Chiu, an asylum-seeker who fled Hong Kong after protesting the Chinese government there, says he has lost out on multiple job opportunities in the information technology field as a result of the continued delays for his work permit.

Like Sendil, he entered the U.S. last year and filed his work permit request in May. Chiu, who attended college in the U.S., said he may run out of money by year’s end if he can’t start collecting income.

“At this rate, if it goes on, I’m going to use up my savings pretty soon. If that happens, I’m not sure what to do,” Chiu said. “I feel like I’m being pushed in a corner now.”

Both Chiu and Sendil also described mental health effects caused by the delays keeping their lives and finances in limbo. Chiu said he has been losing sleep recently thinking about his future.

“It’s kind of depressing for me,” Sendil said. “It’s made me so anxious, and I feel so alone here.”

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