Visa processing delays have reached “crisis level,” according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). A recent study conducted by AILA shows that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has slowed down its processing times by 46 percent in the last two years. It’s tempting to attribute the slowdown to the Trump Administration because it has worked to systematically make it harder for immigrants to enter the United States, whether through “enhanced vetting” or tightening the conditions under which asylum might be granted. Still, it is not solely responsible. Processing times have slowed by 91 percent since 2014. That means visa processing, status adjustments, certificates for citizenship and other USCIS functions may now take much longer to complete than they did for family, friends, and co-workers who applied for the same things five or 10 years ago.
In a letter to USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna dated February 12, 2019, 86 House Democrats wrote, “Clearly, policy changes implemented by the current administration in 2017 and 2018 have increasingly shifted the agency away from its service-oriented mission. Rather than continuing to seek ways to simplify and streamline its benefit-delivery systems, USCIS now appears more focused on erecting barriers to the benefits it administers, including by significantly delaying adjudications.”
According to the AILA report, USCIS had a backlog of 2.3 million delayed cases at the end of fiscal year 2017—a 100 percent increase in just one year. “Ballooning USCIS processing times leave families—including families with U.S. citizen spouses and children—in financial distress, expose vulnerable protection seekers to danger, and threaten the viability of American companies,” the report says. “Yet rather than relieving the logjam, USCIS exacerbates it with policies that inhibit efficiency and prioritize immigration enforcement over the administration of legal immigration benefits. Such measures act as bricks in the Trump administration’s ‘invisible wall’ curbing legal immigration in the United States.”
Critics of USCIS contend that the processing is slowed by questions and investigations that are designed to lengthen the process, even if they are at best tangentially related to the matter at hand. USCIS spokesperson Michael Bars defends the agency and says, “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.” According to AILA’s report though, there was only a four percent increase in new cases in 2017, the year that the delayed case backlog doubled.
Because dealing with USCIS now takes longer and is less predictable than it once was, it is more important than ever that those who are considering status adjustments and visa applications enlist the help of experienced immigration lawyers. They may not be able to make the system move more quickly, but they can help applicants avoid the pitfalls that might make it move more slowly.