Drastic processing delays at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), under the Trump administration, emphasize how even mundane immigration procedures have suddenly become increasingly difficult, with far-reaching consequences.

Prior to 2017, on average, it took about 60 days for a person to receive an employment authorization document (EAD) from USCIS. Now, some people are waiting well over six months, only to receive an EAD within days of its expiration.

Processing delays have impacted thousands of people, forcing some to lose their jobs, income, healthcare, social security benefits, among many other unnamed consequences. Additionally, these delays have now required an increasing number of people to pay hundreds of dollars for services through USCIS that they can’t fully utilize. An employment authorization document EAD provides certain immigrant populations with the ability to work in the U.S. One EAD application costs $410 for a single adult applicant. In some cases, there is an additional $85 biometrics fee, which brings the total cost for an EAD to a whopping $495. Each EAD is only valid for as long as the corresponding immigration status is in effect.

*Peter, a media professional who is originally from Liberia, described the added difficulty of waiting six months for a new work authorization document while looking for full-time work.

“[The process] is not logical and it’s an inconvenience, especially a financial inconvenience,” he told Blavity.

According to Peter, he received his new work authorization just 15 days before it expired again.

Originally from Sudan, *Amal, who works in health care, was out of work for six months while also waiting for new work authorization. As the only source of income for her household, the delay caused substantial stress. She reached out to African Communities Together, a New York-based immigration advocacy organization, which assisted her in securing an attorney to help resolve the matter.

*Rose is a former union representative from Liberia, who is now retired. Additionally, she has also utilized support from African Communities Together. The organization helped her apply for a new employment authorization, which took seven months to arrive. However, when it finally did, it was backdated and only valid for three months. Since then, she has been battling the Social Security Administration, which has temporarily reduced her monthly income to $0, due to the lapse. Her experience highlights both the scale of processing delays and its impact on senior citizens, a group that has received little attention in the national immigration debate.

So, what is going on at USCIS under Director Lee Cissna?

In a report released in January 2019, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) suggested that policy changes via the Trump administration made under the guise of “extreme vetting” has created unprecedented delays in processing immigration-related applications across the board. The organization went as far as to describe these policy changes as “bricks in the Trump administration’s ‘invisible wall’ curbing legal immigration in the United States.” Though backlogs are not uncommon for the agency, current delays have become so significant, they have reached “crisis levels.”

Akin to a sleight of hand, the administration has amplified the U.S.-Mexico border as the heart of immigration debate by publicly admonishing refugee caravans and asylum seekers who present themselves at legal ports of entry. They have shifted millions of dollars to increase the capacity and reach of immigration enforcement agencies. On the other hand, sinister policy changes related to other forms of legal immigration directly impact mundane procedures specific to applicants, which largely goes unnoticed by the public at large. Furthermore, it’s evidence of the ways the administration has attacked immigrant communities from all sides.

There are various kinds of applications a person might submit to USCIS, including but not limited to, forms for U.S. citizenship, permanent residency via a green card, travel authorization, visas for vulnerable populations, DACA renewals, and work authorization. One notable finding in AILA’s report was that “even as the overall volume of USCIS case receipts declined through the first three quarters of [fiscal year] 2018, average case processing times increased during that fiscal year” — meaning, there are conceivably fewer cases and longer wait times.

In addition to decreased transparency on the part of USCIS, these delays amount in applicants experiencing longer wait times with limited channels of inquiry, all while the administration makes more categories of people vulnerable to detention or deportation. Many beneficiaries of immigration relief programs, such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), have had to deal with employment authorization delays, despite being legally present in the U.S. for decades. These programs cover, in part, Caribbean and African countries including Haiti, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Liberia.

Here is the issue: TPS, which is currently being upheld through court injunctions in several countries, and DED are typically renewed 12 to 18 months at a time. Though USCIS is mandated by law to provide a 60-day notice, announcements are often released a few weeks, sometimes days, before the termination date. As such, it is not possible to apply and receive a new work authorization before the old one expires.

To account for this, USCIS typically issues a six-month automatic extension for expired EADs, which gives applicants time to apply and receive a new one. However, the recent delays have made getting a new EAD takes more time than the standard automatic extension period. As a result, individuals and entire families are suddenly put in compromising positions of insecurity. It can make even the simplest tasks, like maintaining a current driver’s license, more complicated. To renew a driver’s license, the DMV relies on updated immigration documents, including one’s new EAD or EAD approval notice. Instead of a four or eight-year license, these groups are provided licenses that are only valid through each designation period. Therefore, navigating this burdensome process can become a yearly occurrence.

Representative Jesús “Chuy” García led a delegation of 86 House Democrats to raise concerns over USCIS processing delays. Similarly, 70 Law professionals and scholars also questioned the USCIS policy changes that have affected employment authorization for TPS holders. Current avenues for impacted individuals to address such problems include USCIS Customer Service hotline, contacting the office of a congressional representative, filing a report with CIS Ombudsmen, and reaching out to local immigration advocacy groups.

The delays are not a product of the personal failures of the immigrant applicants. Rather, they are the outcome of harmful policy changes. Countermeasures and aggressive congressional oversights proportionate to the breadth of the problem at hand are what's needed to provide relief.

 *Subjects are identified by their first name only to protect their anonymity.

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