In May of 2022, the USCIS announced a trio of efforts to increase efficiency and reduce burdens to the overall legal immigration system. USCIS set new agency-wide backlog reduction goals, expanded premium processing to additional form types, and resolved to work to improve timely access to employment authorization documents. At that time, the USCIS had inherited a significant number of backlogged cases and increased processing times. It committed to reducing these caseloads and processing times while ensuring that fair and efficient services are available to applicants and petitioners.
Some progress has been made in 2023. For example, approximately a two-month increase in processing times for most green card categories has been noticed. Green card petitions for refugee/asylee relatives have witnessed one of the highest improvements in processing times, from 28.6 months in 2022 to around 14.1 months in 2023. The USCIS has also improved its processing time for work permits in 2023 to 3.6 months, up from 4.1 months in 2022. Green card petitions under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 are being processed much faster in 2023 (3.4 months compared to the 5.4 months processing time for 2022). In regard to Consular processing, great strides have been made in addressing backlogs. Indeed, the Department of State expects to return to pre-pandemic processing times in Fiscal Year 2023.
What About The U.S. Debt Ceiling?
The question arises what will happen to immigration processing times if, as is currently increasingly feared, there is a U.S. federal government budgetary default in the mid-summer of this year? In discussions about a possible U.S. default on its debt payments, some leaders like to point out that an increase in the debt limit doesn’t authorize new federal spending — it only allows borrowing to pay for what Congress has already approved and therefore should not be a big deal. Put another way, breaching the debt ceiling is different than a federal government shutdown. The government can continue to operate once the Treasury has exhausted its cash on hand. But outgoing payments would be limited to incoming revenue. Not all payments could be made on time and in full. The bigger fear is that such an event would shake the foundations of the global financial system, and in that context immigration processing times are small potatoes.
The Main Event
Still, immigration processing would be affected and though by comparison it would be the side show to the main event, it is still worthy of consideration. Besides, while even if not for everyone, for many people immigration processing is the main event in their lives.
What Happens In A Default?
If the federal government defaults, in one sense, immigration processing may not be severely impacted. After all, the agency responsible for processing immigration applications and petitions, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is a fee-charging agency. That means that it relies on fees collected from applicants and petitioners to fund its operations. What is more, overseas consular services are regarded as essential services and therefore should not be completely shut down. But in both cases a default would have some negative impact on processing: the USCIS would not have access to extra funding made available to it from the federal government and overseas activities would be cut down to bare essentials.
Additionally, government defaults can have broader economic consequences that can impact immigrants in a number of ways. For example, debt defaults can lead to recessions and depressions, which can lead to higher unemployment rates and make it harder for immigrants to find jobs. Immigrants may also find it more difficult to obtain credit as lenders may be reluctant to lend during periods of economic instability. Investors may grow more cautious about making investments in the USA to get green cards.
As to how much of an impact a government default may have on immigration, nobody knows for sure other than to be sure that it would be better for a default to be avoided. It may be interesting to consider what is taking place in Canada in this area to soothe some of our concerns.
Canadians On The Verge Of A Strike
In Canada, bargaining groups representing approximately 160,000 public servants are in a legal strike position. These employees provide a range of services for the public including immigration, citizenship, and passport services.
In the event of a labor disruption, certain services may be affected. The Canadian government is assuring the public that some Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) services will remain available. Immigrants will still be able to: apply online, mail applications to IRCC, use their online accounts, and access some emergency services. IRCC goes on to say some services are offered by non-governmental organizations and they will therefore still be available: settlement services from partner organizations, health care through the Interim Federal Health Program, and visa application centres outside of Canada.
However, IRCC points out that some services will be partially or fully disrupted. In the event of a labor disruption, applicants should expect delays with processing applications, in-person appointments, or events including citizenship ceremonies, contacting IRCC via email, phone, or social media, consular citizenship, and passport services. The disruption will also impact Employment and Social Development Canada and therefore the temporary foreign worker programs, Canada’s Job Bank, and its passport services. The strike could carry on through the whole summer.
Things Are Never As Bad As They Look
Whether we are talking about the U.S. or Canada, something Colin Powell once said comes to mind. He once cautioned that things are never as bad as they sometimes look. Let’s hope his advice holds true for us in the days ahead.