By Andressia Ramirez
It has been hard to ignore the loud fight over President Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall. However, as this public battle rages on, a far quieter — and more insidious — fight is taking place behind the scenes. Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, countless changes have been implemented by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and other federal agencies that have functioned as bricks in the Trump administration’s growing “invisible wall.” While this wall has gone unperceived by many, millions of individuals affected by the US immigration system — visitors, workers, intending immigrants, US citizen relatives of immigrants, US employers — are feeling more and more obstructed as they consider their options and move through immigration-related application processes. This raises the question: How can immigrants can come “the right way” if the legal way is blocked?
One of the many obstacles quietly choking the legal immigration process is the dramatic increase in processing times for immigration-related applications.
On January 30, 2019, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) issued an analysis on USCIS data which revealed that under the Trump administration, the agency has reached crisis-level delays in the processing of applications and petitions for immigration benefits. Overall, the average case processing time has increased by 46 percent over the past two fiscal years and 91 percent since FY2014. In addition, USCIS processed 94 percent of its form types much slower in FY2018 than in FY2014, with applications ranging from green cards for family members to visas for human trafficking victims to petitions for immigrant workers. Due to this processing time increase, by the end of FY2017, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified “a net backlog”of 2,330,143 USCIS cases, the highest on record, even though case receipt volume only rose by 4 percent during that period.
No Longer a Nation of Immigrants?
When USCIS was first established by Congress, the agency was meant to act as a service-oriented immigration benefits agency whose intended purpose was to adjudicate cases “fairly and efficiently.” Prior to February 2018, USCIS’s mission statement referred to the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” but since then, this phrase has been eliminated from the mission statement. There have also been numerous policy changes and practices that have transformed this intended service-oriented agency into a “third immigration enforcement component of DHS.”
What Causes the USCIS Processing Delays
A variety of factors can contribute to case processing delays, including case receipt volume, personnel levels, and agency policies. However, under the Trump Administration, agency policies stand out as the key contributor to processing delays. For example:
● The Trump administration has overhauled refugee case adjudications, thus halting the processing of many of these applications.
● There has been an increase in Requests for Evidence, many of them unfounded and unnecessary, which drives down efficiency and delays cases.
● In 2017, USCIS put into effect a new in-person interview requirement for all employment-based green card applications and Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition. The addition of these interviews to the existing case loads of USCIS field offices, without an accompanying increase in staff resources, drives up the processing time for all other cases.
Other Bricks in the “Invisible Wall”
In addition, several other policies and practices — some a dramatic shift away from previous policy — have been implemented that not only direct resources away from adjudication to enforcement, thus slowing case processing, but also provide a major chilling effect. Among these policies are the following:
● The new “Notice to Appear” policy, which threatens to place individuals into deportation proceedings if their applications and petitions are denied.
● A new measure to place foreign students and exchange visitors into deportation proceedings who, without intention, commit even de minimis status violations.
● “Deportation traps” have been enforced in which ICE has arrested spouses of U.S citizens who appear at a USCIS office for an interview relating to their Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, which once approve would grant legal residence.
Impact of USCIS Processing Delays
Millions of families are currently struggling to make ends meet due to the delays with Form I-765, Application for Work Authorization which can result in job loss or the inability to work for periods of time or at all. There is also lack of security within family structures which battle every day against the probability of being broken apart. While there are also many separated families who are depending on petition approvals with other form types to finally reunite with one another.
Businesses are also having difficulty keeping employees who have been in the United States for years on work visas. These processing delays in employment-based cases have also caused talented candidates from wanting to seek employment in the United States and have instead looked to other countries for opportunities.
Foreign students who have studied within the United States are also starting to look to “immigrant-friendly nations” for employment because of the lack of work visas. This takes away talent and skills that could be used within the very country they sought for their education.
There are currently 2.3 million people whose cases are still in limbo and their lives with them, since FY2017. But it is important to understand that these delays also impact their families, employers, and communities.
A Calculated Climate of Fear
Perhaps the most detrimental impact of the “invisible wall” is the climate of fear it is perpetuating. These invisible barriers are creating widespread uncertainty and anxiety for those affected by the immigration system because it is now unclear what to expect, even for cases that at one point seemed likely to be approved.
Indeed, it seems apparent that the “invisible wall” has been built specifically to deter would-be visitors, workers, and immigrants from filing applications — and this deterrence tactic is working. Many potential applicants now feel that filing an immigration application or petition would be a lost cause. A belief is unfortunately spreading that it is best to wait for a new presidential administration that will bring forth new policies.
However, we cannot emphasize enough that despite all the hurdles in the immigration system, no actual changes in the law have been enacted. When considering whether to file an immigration-related application, the first step is undoubtedly to assess the risks and challenges, but it is equally important to look at the big picture. Despite the frustration and uncertainty caused by processing delays and other obstacles, there is still a way forward for many qualifying applicants. Avoiding or delaying filing an application may needlessly close doors for an applicant, or worse, may result in serious consequences to an individual’s immigration status. Each case must be evaluated carefully from all angles. Please seek help, rely on reputable sources on information, and do not give up on available opportunities.
For more information on your options and immigration law in the United States, call Vigoda Law Firm today at 919-307-7817.