Processing times for renewals have shot up at the underfunded Citizenship and Immigration Services. Every 15 days, Naina Arora checks a U.S. federal government website to see when she’ll be allowed to work again.
Arora, the wife of an H-1B visa holder, has been on unpaid leave from her job in the operations department of a major health-insurance provider in Pasadena, Calif. since October, when her work permit expired. She had applied for a renewal in advance, assuming it would take something like the three months it had taken her to get her first one in 2019.
Instead, the average processing time listed on the website for cases like hers continues to increase—from 5½ months, to 7½, to 12½. After countless calls to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) case hotline, she finally reached an employee. As she recalls, the response she got was: “I’m so sorry, it’s just bad luck, and we cannot do anything about it. Just wait and pray.”
Unprecedented delays in approving work-permit renewals are routinely leaving immigrants such as Arora in limbo. The government doesn’t keep statistics on how many people have had their permits expire while waiting for a renewal, but officials estimate that, at its worst in January and February, hundreds per day were losing permission to work.
Work permits, which generally last for 2 years, are automatically extended for 180 days once holders have applied for a renewal. That safeguard, put in place in 2017—at a time when it took an average of five months to process work permits—was supposed to avoid exactly this sort of problem. But it’s often now insufficient.
The lucky ones, like Arora, are placed on unpaid leave, losing their income and also their driver’s license. The less fortunate ones are fired and must resort to working off the books to make ends meet. “I was working an under-the-table job, because I didn’t have any valid documentation,” says one home health aide, who requested anonymity. “So this waiting period has caused us to become illegal employees.”
The people most affected by the work-permit cliff are immigrants waiting for decisions on their applications for asylum or green cards—for which there are also long delays. “We inherited a ship with a bunch of holes punched through the hull,” says a USCIS official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Now we’ve patched up those holes, and we’re doggedly bailing out water so that we can truly right the ship for the long haul.”
USCIS found itself on the verge of fiscal collapse in summer 2020; its budget is largely funded by application fees, but applications had plummeted because of the Covid-19 pandemic and Trump-era restrictions on immigration. The agency avoided widespread furloughs, but instituted a hiring freeze that wasn’t lifted until well into 2021.
At the same time, the shutting down of in-person offices for months in 2020 prolonged already-growing processing times. Then, in summer 2020, the Trump administration created a regulation that turned the two-page work-permit application (which the agency claimed took about 12 minutes to complete) into a seven-page one.
The renewal backlog almost doubled in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2021. The government processed only half the work-permit renewals it received from green-card applicants and asylum-seekers.
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