When people talk about our broken immigration system, they are most likely referring to the fact that millions of long-term residents have no path to legal immigration status, or the fact that Congress has not passed meaningful immigration reform in over 30 years. But our immigration system is broken in another way too. The immigration bureaucracy is a study in dysfunction that fails to work at the most basic level.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gets a lot of criticism for how it is run, but a lesser-known agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), holds sway over many more people’s lives. USCIS is the part of the immigration system that processes applications for immigration benefits, including applications for lawful permanent residence, naturalization, work authorization, and visa extensions. While ICE deported approximately 185,000 people in fiscal year 2020, USCIS received 7.7 million applications.
Millions of people’s lives are in a holding pattern because they are waiting for decisions on applications filed with USCIS. They may be waiting a long time. For example, the wait time for a decision on an application to adjust status (i.e., a green card application) being processed at the USCIS Texas Service Center is currently 27 to 62.5 months. Applicants cannot inquire about the status of their applications unless they have been pending since May 24, 2016, a time when many thought Hillary Clinton would be the next president. These wait times do not even take into account the visa backlogs that leave applicants unable to even apply for years or, in some cases, decades.
The long wait times have devastating effects on people’s lives. I recently received an email from an international undergraduate student at my institution, the University of Chicago. He had filed to renew his work authorization in October 2020. In May 2021, the agency sent a letter requesting photographs, which he had already submitted. His application is still pending. He had to forfeit his summer internship and is suffering financial hardship because he cannot work. He called USCIS and was told his application had been lost and was not in the system. The advice he got? File another application and pay another $410 fee. Oh, and his application would go to the back of the queue. This is someone who has already been approved to work in the United States. The application would merely extend the authorization for another year.
The most surprising thing about this story is that he was able to speak to someone. It used to be that applicants could make appointments to visit local USCIS offices in order to fix problems or ask questions, but this service was phased out before the pandemic. Now, applicants must navigate an automated phone line that makes it practically impossible to speak to a real person. There are often so many people trying to call about their applications that it takes hours to get through. The pandemic has made all of these problems worse, but the dysfunction existed long before.
Recently, I had a client who was granted asylum, but the immigration judge could not enter the order until my client had been fingerprinted at a USCIS processing center. The day following the hearing, I dutifully filed a fingerprint request with USCIS and waited. A month later, I had not received an answer, and I sent another request. When that didn’t work, I called the USCIS hotline and was told that the USCIS Chicago asylum office could help me schedule the appointment. When I called the asylum office, they said that I could call the USCIS processing center directly. When I called the processing center, the service representative said that they didn’t book the appointments and that I had to call the hotline.
When I called the hotline again, I was told that no one was responsible for booking the appointments at the present time and that I should call back in six weeks to see if new guidance had been issued. I asked to speak with a supervisor. I was told that a supervisor would call me back in the next 42 days and that I should keep my phone with me at all times. If I missed the call, I would have to start the process again.
When the supervisor called weeks later, he said that I needed to contact my client’s deportation officer. I called the deportation officer, and he said he wasn’t responsible for making the appointments either. When I begged for his help, he finally said that he would do me a favor — and he set up the appointment in less than five minutes. He ended the call with: “You know, any of those people you talked to could have set up the appointment.”
A system in which it takes four months to schedule an appointment isn’t just broken. It is barely a system at all, and it is immigrants who pay the price.
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