What do you think would happen if a client came to my office (virtually), hired me, paid me money to file a case, and then I did not file the case and refused to return the client’s money? Here’s what I think would happen–the client would sue me to get the money back, and I might be dis-barred. Also, I could go to jail.
So what happens when a person hires USCIS to adjudicate an application for a work permit or a Green Card, pays money to the agency, USCIS determines that the person qualifies for the benefit, but then refuses to issue the document? Apparently, nothing happens. The agency keeps the money and the applicant is SOL. That is exactly what we are seeing these days for people approved for an Employment Authorization Document (“EAD”) or a Green Card.
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “In mid-June, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ contract ended with the company that had been printing [Green Cards and EADs].” “Production was slated to be insourced, but the agency’s financial situation… prompted a hiring freeze that required it to ratchet down printing.” As of early July, about “50,000 green cards and 75,000 other employment authorization documents promised to immigrants haven’t been printed.” These are documents that the applicants paid for and qualified for, and which they need to live and work in the United States.
The Administration is blaming the problem on the pandemic, which it says has impacted USCIS’s budget. But that is not the whole story. Like many agencies under President Trump, mismanagement and hostility towards the agency’s mission have resulted in budget woes that long precede the coronavirus. According to an article by the Migration Policy Institute, USCIS essentially made a profit from fee receipts every year between FY2008 and FY2018 (data was not available for prior years). But starting in FY2019 (which began on October 1, 2018–well before the pandemic), the agency started running a deficit. The basic reasons are “falling petition rates… and increased spending on vetting and enforcement.” As MPI notes–
Alongside declines in petitions, USCIS has increased spending on detecting immigration-benefit fraud and on vetting applications. Anti-fraud costs more than doubled from FY2016 to FY2020, rising from $177 million to $379 million. Vetting nearly tripled during that period, from $53 million to $149 million. In addition, enhanced vetting appears to be decreasing productivity. USCIS adjudicated 63 percent of its pending and incoming caseload in FY2016. The adjudication rate dropped to 56 percent in FY2019. Over that same period, despite falling application rates, the backlog of pending petitions grew by 1.4 million, to 5.7 million. As a result, processing times for most types of petitions have increased, with some more than doubling.
According to the Washington Post, it’s not likely that USCIS’s budget will recover any time soon–
Presidential executive orders have almost entirely ended issuance of green cards and work-based visas for people applying from outside the country; red tape and bureaucracy have slowed the process for those applying from within U.S. borders. For a while, the agency refused to forward files from one office to another The centers that collect necessary biometric data remain shuttered. These pipeline delays are likely to dramatically reduce the number of green cards ultimately approved and issued this year.
Many employees at USCIS have already received furlough notices, and unless Congress steps in with a $1.2 billion fix, approximately two-thirds of the agency’s employees will be out of work by early next month. And as we’ve seen, the agency’s budget shortfall is already having an effect–more than 125,000 people have not received Green Cards or EADs, even though they paid for, and qualified for those documents (a few documents are still being produced–one of our clients received an EAD last week).
If you are waiting for a Green Card or an EAD, what can you do?
First, for anyone with a delayed card (where the card has already been approved), apparently the USCIS Ombudsman is trying to assist. If you are waiting for an approved Green Card or EAD, the first thing to do is place an online request for case assistance with the Ombudsman. You can do that here. The Ombudsman is “sending weekly spreadsheets to USCIS to verify card requests are in line to be processed.”
For people who have been granted asylum, you are eligible to work even without an EAD (using your asylum approval document or I-94, your Social Security card, and a photo ID).
If you are waiting to receive an approved Green Card, you might try calling USCIS at 800-375-5283 to request an appointment at the local field office. Field offices can place an “I-551” stamp (also called an “ADIT” stamp) in your passport, and this indicates that you are a lawful permanent resident (a Green Card holder). Due to the pandemic, USCIS offices are closed for most in-person appointments, but if you have an “urgent need” for the I-551 stamp, you may be able to obtain an appointment. An example of an urgent need might be that you will lose your job unless you have proof of status. Maybe get a letter from your employer explaining the need, so you will have that when you try to make an appointment, and when you go to the USCIS field office.
If you have a pending asylum case and are waiting to receive an approved EAD, you might also try calling USCIS. You can ask the agency to expedite the card. However, it seems unlikely that they can do so–one USCIS employee states, “Our volume of inquiries [has] spiked concerning cases being approved, but the cards [are] not being produced… A lot [of the inquiries] are expedite requests, and we can’t do anything about it; it’s costing people jobs and undue stress.” Nevertheless, since some EADs are still being issued, perhaps a call is worth a try.
Finally, you might contact your representatives in Congress (in the House and Senate). Ask them to fund USCIS, and remind them that “Congress… must also exercise its constitutional oversight authority to create and boost meaningful accountability, transparency, and productivity within USCIS.” If Congress does not get involved, USCIS will largely shut down in a few weeks. But USCIS does not deserve a blank check. Congress should ensure that the agency uses the money to fulfill its core mission, and that it gives people what they paid for.