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Chronic Backlogs Targeted in New Set of Immigration Measures (1)

March 29, 2022, 2:10 PMUpdated: March 29, 2022, 7:32 PM

New premium processing options for immigration benefits will be added in a Department of Homeland Security rule expected to be published Wednesday as part of a broader set of agency initiatives to tackle daunting backlogs in the country’s legal immigration system.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS unit that adjudicates benefits including green cards and work authorization documents, is also setting new internal targets for reducing those backlogs, according to a press statement issued Tuesday.

The agency’s additionally preparing to issue regulations that will lengthen automatic extensions of work eligibility for applicants seeking to renew those forms if they’re not processed before existing employment eligibility expires.

“USCIS remains committed to delivering timely and fair decisions to all we serve,” Director Ur M. Jaddou said in the Tuesday statement. “Every application we adjudicate represents the hopes and dreams of immigrants and their families, as well as their critical immediate needs such as financial stability and humanitarian protection.”

The regulations will implement a 2020 USCIS stopgap funding measure that authorized the agency to expand the use of fast-track options for applicants who pay additional fees—a tool that could help reduce massive backlogs at the agency. The Emergency Stopgap USCIS Stabilization Act was part of a larger federal spending package (Public Law 116-159).

Phased Approach

USCIS already boosted premium processing fees to $2,500 for some employment-based visas.

Homeland Security will take a phased approach to adding the fast-track option, according to the not-yet-published version of the rule made public Tuesday.

Premium processing for some work authorization forms may not be available until fiscal 2025, DHS estimated. That strategy will allow current premium processing revenue to pay for costs of expanding the service, the agency said.

More than half of newly eligible applicants are expected to opt for premium processing, USCIS said.

“The premium processing is a good step if the extra funds are then used to hire more staff to process all applications faster, rather than just shuffle people in-line,” said Xiao Wang, co-founder and CEO at Boundless Immigration, a company that offers services to navigate the U.S. immigration system.

USCIS said it’s adding additional staff and technology to meet new internal goals for reducing “cycle times"—an internal metric of how many months’ worth of pending cases are awaiting a decision.

Shev Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said having those goals publicly posted will increase transparency and allow advocates to judge whether cases are outside those targets.

Automatic Extensions

The agency didn’t offer details on the expected release of work authorization regulations. A rule on the automatic extension period for employment authorization documents went to the White House for review earlier this month.

That comes after plaintiffs filed multiple class actions in recent months alleging unreasonable delays in processing work authorization renewals that have forced many applicants out of work.

Increasing the automatic extension period could help match actual wait times, said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.

“There’s no reason someone should be losing their job because of a processing delay,” she said.

(Updates story to add details on USCIS announcement and advocates' reactions.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Laura D. Francis at lfrancis@bloomberglaw.com