Late last year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released preliminary data on how their immigration work was faring during the pandemic. The organization reported that services like naturalization were being processed and approved at a pre-pandemic pace, while other agencies were experiencing major delays.
Delays in citizenship or documentation can leave applicants in limbo and unsure of what to expect. Even before the pandemic, the timeline of when cases get approved could be a coin toss.
“There were some aspects of it that the pandemic helped USCIS realize, you know, there’s other ways of doing things,” Gabriela Parra says. She is a managing attorney at Layde and Parra, a Milwaukee immigration law firm.
Parra continues, “But as well, it has been challenging because of the case processing times being delayed.”
One aspect that has changed within the department’s process has been the recapturing of fingerprints. Before the pandemic when a person applied for their Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, renewal or Green Card renewal, they would need to go down to to their local USCIS office to get fingerprinted, Parra explains.
Then the pandemic hit, this caused a delay. Now USCIS retrieves fingerprints from an applicant’s prior application.
“I even saw fingerprints recaptured from 15 years ago, which was shocking to me that they waited for a pandemic to hit to be able to start doing this,” Parra says.
Other changes that have come out of the pandemic have been naturalizing U.S citizens over video conferences and even moving naturalizing ceremonies online.
However, Parra also points to some drawbacks from the pandemic — like process delays and the order in which applications get processed. Parra says that sometimes an application is processed based on a first-come, first-serve, and sometimes they are processed based on the last submitted first approved.
“I have petitions that have been pending for well over 12 months and out of nowhere, I submitted one recently and it was processed within three months,” she recounts.
Parra hopes that processing times go back to reflecting that actual amount of time it takes to process an application, since the delays seem to not be following a pattern.
Although the current administration has made an effort to improve and open lines of communication with immigration attorneys, she says there’s still work to be done.
So, what happens when DACA cases take longer to be processed?
“We had a lot of DACA applicants that were laid off because they didn’t get their work permit on time,” Parra says.
Iuscely Flores adds, “Mentally, it just feels really weird to be placed in this like limbo.” Flores is the racial justice and economic equity advocate with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and a DACA recipient.
Flores continues, “Because then I actually am limited by the work that I can do when I’m waiting for my DACA to arrive.”
It’s important to note although many DACA recipients received their status during their youth, many of them are adults now.
“They’ve established capital in the U.S., they’ve established their relationships to how they navigate around the world as an adult. Having DACA allows us to have a driver’s license, and it allows us to get to work from point A to point B without the fear of being deported,” Flores explains.
Still, DACA recipients can’t go back to their home countries, which she points out feels like being stuck in a golden cage. Flores says it’s time to change the language and narrative and be truthful that the path to citizenship is akin to indentured servitude. “I don’t want people to feel sad for me. I want people to see how empowered I am without power, to begin with, and that’s powerful within itself,” she says.
With the current political climate and the pandemic, Flores acknowledges she understands how generations can be completely wiped out within the span of three years. After her parents self deported, and because of the impacts of the pandemic on her family, Flores says four generations of people now rely on her paycheck for support.
“This system is failing an entire lineage. Immigrant rights movements and pro-like democratic movements have always shared how DACA is [and] has never been enough, and it isn’t enough,” she says.
Now, she says DACA prices have gone up, and the process for renewal applications is exhausting. Flores asks why USCIS makes applicants go through all these trials and tribulations when USCIS could give people the benefit of the doubt and automatically extend the current two-year permits or conditional residencies.
“They could have created these systems to help the most vulnerable because let’s be honest, a lot of undocumented people are already the most vulnerable in our society. They’re the people that we don’t see and they probably deserve the most protection because they’re constantly putting themselves on the line for the advancement of this society,” she says.
Updated: February 9, 2022 at 10:57 AM CST
The audio of the interview has been updated for accuracy.
Corrected: February 9, 2022 at 9:06 AM CST
We corrected the misspelling of Iuscely Flores’ name.