U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced plans to immediately increase the length of validity for certain types of work permits to reduce the times that immigrant workers will have to file applications.
It also unveiled a new mission statement laying out its vision to be more "inclusive and accessible" under the administration of President Joe Biden, after the previous administration's more restrictive approach to immigration.
The federal agency responsible for overseeing the country's legal immigration system faces an application backlog of 3.8 million worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an internal watchdog report.
That has led to long delays for many of the immigration petitions they process, especially to issue work permits. They account for 1.4 million of the 8 million applications that Citizenship and Immigration Services has pending for visas, permits and green cards for immigrants living the United States.
Applicants face processing delays
Applications that in the past took weeks, have instead taken the agency months to process. The delays have at times extended beyond the validity of the permits and automatic extensions, forcing thousands of immigrant workers to leave their jobs as they wait for the agency to process applications.
The agency announced Tuesday it would extend the length of six types of work permits in order to reduce the number of applications that will have to be added to an already lengthy queue.
"The policy updates were not only intended to address processing delays — which are an agency priority — but also afforded USCIS the option to quickly shift adjudication resources when necessary," Ana Santiago, a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson, said via email.
Immigrants with temporary status or protection in the country need authorization from the agency to work legally in the U.S. There are nearly 60 categories eligible to file a Form I-765, the application to receive work authorization. The agency is extending the validity of work permits for six of those categories.
Asylees (granted, not pending status).
Individuals granted withholding of deportation or removal.
Applicants under the Violence Against Women Act.
Individuals paroled into the country for urgent humanitarian reasons.
Individuals granted deferred action, but not including DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Previously, applicants under the first four categories were eligible to receive a one-year work permit. But effective immediately, all new and renewal applications will be valid for two years, if approved.
For the remaining two categories, approved work permits will extend for the duration of their parole or deferred action period, instead of shorter periods of time as was the case before this week.
Who will be affected by the changes
The move is expected to benefit a relatively small pool of applicants. In fiscal year 2021, Citizenship and Immigration Services approved more than 120,000 applications under the six I-765 categories affected by this week's change. That same year, the agency approved a total of 1.6 million work permits.
"These steps are just the beginning and USCIS will continue to work with urgency to bring down processing times across the board, including for (employment authorization documents)," Santiago added, referring to the formal name for the work permits.
Citizenship and Immigration Services has taken other steps over the past year to reduce the backlog in work permit applications. The five-year strategy is to digitize applications in order to boost efficiency and reduce response times.
The agency has extended automatic extensions for certain permit categories and is reusing fingerprints on some renewals to process the applications more quickly. It moved applications from immigrant healthcare workers to the front of the queue.
But the new changes the agency announced would not impact the largest block of I-765 applications, those for asylum seekers with pending cases, which accounted for nearly 333,000 of permits approved last year. Those are already two years in length, with an automatic six-month extension for unresolved applications to renew the permit.
Agency sued for processing delays
The Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project, a nationwide nonprofit, and the American Immigration Council in Washington filed a lawsuit in San Francisco on behalf of five asylum seekers against Citizenship and Immigration Services for the processing delays on work permits.
They argue that the agency is not moving fast enough to process applications, resulting in losses of employment and other benefits for immigrant workers whose work permits expired or are close to expiring because of the delays.
Dayana Vera de Aponte, an asylum seeker from Venezuela, is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She had her I-765 approved in January, nearly 11 months after she first filed the application. Her permit expired before then, forcing her to stop working for two months.
"It's hard: I had to borrow money to pay the most important things. I have a car, I have credit cards I have to pay, other pending accounts, the rent," she told The Arizona Republic last month.
The U.S. Justice Department, representing the federal government in court, filed a motion last month to dismiss the lawsuit. That motion is under seal. A hearing is set for March 11.
Agency rebrands mission statement
The agency came under fire from immigration advocates during former President Donald Trump's administration. Trump was accused of politicizing the agency and adding requirements that increased the backlog.
In 2018, the agency removed references about a "nation of immigrants" from its mission statement. On Wednesday, the agency's chief unveiled a new mission statement, after consulting with its 19,000 employees on the change.
The new mission statement reads: "USCIS upholds America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve."
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Immigration agency extends some work permits to ease processing delays