U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is opening a new service center to try to fix some of its most egregious backlogs. The agency reportedly has already reassigned 150 employees – and plans to have over 300 – to staff a virtual service center, which will eventually operate fully remotely (though it will accept paper as well as online applications).
Since it can’t be named after its location like most centers, it will be named the HART Service Center after the types of cases it plans to adjudicate: Humanitarian, Adjustments, Removing Conditions, and Travel Documents. Specifically, USCIS has confirmed that the center will process four types of forms – all of which involve urgent cases involving violence, persecution, and/or family unity and have become subject to processing delays of over a year to five years.
“Bona fide determinations” for U visa applicants (Form I-918). The U visa, which provides legal status to victims of crimes who help law enforcement with investigations, has a horrifically long wait list since Congress allows only 10,000 visas to be issued a year. And despite regulations places U-visa applicants on a “wait list” while they await one of those 10,000 visas, the “wait list” itself – which comes with work authorization and prosecutorial discretion in the form of “deferred action” — takes five years to adjudicate. In 2021, after facing intense litigation pressure, USCIS created a new process to ensure that U visa applicants can still work legally in the United States and receive drivers’ licenses and other services while their applications are pending. But while the “bona fide determination” – which certifies that the applicant has passed a background check and submitted a complete application – takes very little time, it’s already created a bottleneck of its own. It takes five years for the existing service centers to process 80% of cases (the benchmark USCIS uses to report wait times).
Petitions for status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (Form I-360). In addition to creating the U visa, the Violence Against Women Act created a way for immigrant survivors of domestic violence to “self-petition” for legal status. This allows survivors to stay in the United States, work legally, and become eligible for permanent residency and citizenship without having to rely on a spouse or relative – who might be abusing them or protecting an abuser – to petition for them through family-based immigration channels. VAWA self-petitions are an essential tool in allowing survivors to leave abusive households, since it deprives abusers of control over both their legal status in the U.S. and their ability to earn a living. But the only service center currently processing these applications is taking 33 months – nearly three years – to process 80 percent of them, forcing survivors to wait in a potentially dangerous state of limbo.
- Provisional waivers of the “unlawful presence” bar for green card applicants (Form I-601A). Immigrants who otherwise qualify for green cards, via petitions from U.S. citizen or permanent resident relatives or based on employment, can still be barred from receiving them based on having been unlawfully present in the United States now or in the past. These immigrants can apply for a waiver if keeping them from the United States would create “extreme hardship” for a U.S. citizen spouse or child – which is true of many families who face indefinite separation. But if the immigrant leaves the U.S. for their required visa interview before the waiver is approved, they can end up stuck outside the country for years before receiving a waiver to return.Over the last five years, as the Council documented in a recent class-action lawsuit, processing times for these waivers grew sixfold from 2017 to 2022. At the two service centers where USCIS decides these waivers, it is taking three years at one center and three and a half years at another service center to decide 80% of these waivers. The ballooning delays led to the Council’s lawsuit, which identifies 300 named plaintiffs who applied for waivers in 2021 or earlier and have not yet received them. The lawsuit also seeks to certify a class of people who have a waiver pending for more than 12 months. Attorneys in the lawsuit estimate that class would include at least 70,000 people.
- Family reunification petitions for families of people granted asylum (Form I-730). One of the benefits of being formally granted asylum or refugee status is the ability to bring your spouse and children to the United States. But in addition to the backlogs plaguing asylum applications themselves, immigrants granted asylum now have to wait a year or longer to get permission to reunite with their families. Similarly, a migrant who comes to the United States with refugee status is subject to the same long wait times. One of the two service centers currently processing these forms is taking over a year to adjudicate 80% of applications; the other is taking nearly two years. The delays not only prolong the suffering of people who have dealt both with persecution in their home countries and with the stress and trauma of fleeing to the United States and waiting for asylum here; they increase the danger of family members who could still be targeted and persecuted in their home countries while waiting for permission to join relatives in the U.S.
USCIS estimates that the new HART Service Center will be fully operational by fall of 2024, and further details about its operation are still forthcoming. Obviously, the immigrants stuck in these egregious backlogs shouldn’t have to wait that long to see meaningful improvements.
These are far from the only types of applications on which USCIS has fallen woefully behind in the last half decade. Increasingly, immigrants and their lawyers have turned to federal courts, in lawsuits like the Council’s suit on the provisional unlawful presence waiver, to lay out the agency’s failures and spur USCIS to act. Adding capacity via a new service center is a step in the right direction – especially one that doesn’t require a new physical office. But the current delays are so egregious that a tremendous amount of work needs to be done before the agency’s performance is acceptable to the immigrants waiting on its decisions to plan their lives.