The clock ticks in the waiting room, with each passing second amplifying the creeping tension of your impending fate. Having sifted through endless piles of documentation and waited for hours on end for the day America accepts you as a citizen, hope is nothing but a tiny speck of light in the far distance.
A matter of ten minutes with the immigration officer grants you this card of legal status for solely five years— the Green Card. Although it may sound relieving— as if the party candidate you were voting for president won— it should not be ignored that millions of immigrants are deprived of gaining official status as Visa requests have reached record high levels.
The Visa Distribution process is multi-faceted, condensed into categories based on the type of visa, priority date, country, etc, and an extensive timeline of submitting procedural paperwork and related materials. Surprisingly, the root of the backlog within visa distribution started 30 years ago.
In 1991, country quotas were instituted through the Immigration and Nationality Act, with no more than 7% of immigrant visas being given within a year. Such a clause has amplified the effects of mass immigration from countries such as India, Mexico, and the Philippines, to name a few. Moreover, there were few policies passed in recent years where the visa application process now requires duplicate interviews, excess paperwork, multiple biometric screenings, and a lengthy background check.
In 1991, Indians had a wait time of approximately three years and two months; however, the statistics from 2018 showcase that wait times have The increasing wait times have cast a grim shadow on the future of immigration within the US, skewing the statistics to show that many may not even receive a green card for their whole lifetime (CitizenPath).
Initially, the delay in Visa distribution had occurred due to the immense immigration occurring around the 1900s; however, once the process had become increasingly complex with multiple steps, it had significantly increased times for interviews, procedural paperwork, etc, delaying more than it should.
The backlog has also led to unprecedented economic implications— employers spend thousands of dollars and wait many years for the completion of the green card process while immigrants must navigate their way through lawyers and run to various appointments to complete the procedure for visa application. Adding on, there is a nationwide labor shortage as there are very few immigrants with legal status to work aside from general contract work visas (Above the Law).
Multiple sources have stepped up claiming that the number of visas issued had significantly decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the backlog situation was initially exacerbated due to President Trump’s immigration policies, with a few examples given. First, President Trump sought to eliminate the diversity visa lottery program, decreasing the number of green cards given out by 50,000, bringing the number down to 140,000 which is barely enough considering there are over a few million immigrants who need to receive a green card. Second, he sought to eliminate the DACA program, before the Supreme Court stepped in to stop this action. Third, he had conducted certain policy decisions which created a cap on the number of refugees admitted.
Lastly, President Trump had intended to restrict handing work permits to spouses of H1-B carriers and increased denial rates of visas to H1-B carriers, reducing the number to a little around 180,000 (Pew). And, it is important to keep in mind that since the start of the COVID pandemic, over a million workers are in the H1-B process, with the highest issue rate of H1-B visas at 180,000 in 2019.
However, compared to the number of incoming workers who need their visas for which process was delayed (Bloomberg), only two million have ever received H1-B visas between 2007-2019. In perspective, when the US receives over a million applicants for H1-B, basic work visas, it takes approximately eight years to sift through the million while these families have sold their belongings, hoping to arrive in the States as soon as possible. At the rate the USCIS is going, it won’t be surprising when many members never achieve their H1-B, EAD, and Green Card on time.
However, the ultimate hit on creating the backlog that has shaken the nation was the COVID-19 pandemic. President Biden had placed several restrictions, greatly delaying the number of visas issued during the pandemic. For example, those who received a green card declined from 240,000 (second quarter of the 2020 fiscal year) to 79,000 (third quarter) (Pew).
Astonishingly, despite all the unwinding of President Trump’s Restrictions and plans to improve the immigration system, wait times have increased. For example, wait times for work permits have increased from 3-4 months extra to almost 8-12 months extra waiting time since 2020.
Now, over 1.5 million people are waiting for their work permits and many immigrants are forced to dip into savings to cover immigration costs while companies pursue a labor shortage of 10 million. Seemingly, the backlog in immigration has only increased since President Trump despite the many attempts to remove regulations (Bloomberg).
Moreover, countries had implemented their own restrictions, preventing those who were either visiting or emigrating from reaching their final destination, with the USA having placed multiple restrictions each time the COVID-19 pandemic experienced a significant wave in cases.
However, the rise of 2021 has seen the USCIS, President Biden, and Congress join hands to reduce the backlogs, which strikes as ironic given how President Biden intended to restrict visas just as his predecessor has. Since 1991, millions of immigrants have been subject to extended waiting times with current times leading to over a decade.
The USCIS has also conducted an odd system of priority dates; those who have arrived here in the early 2000s, applied for visas before 2010, have still been waiting for an EAD or a Green Card. Consequently, those who have arrived within the recent few years have gone through the process of obtaining a visa, green card, and are on the road to citizenship.
The so-called “priority date” system has adversely affected long-standing immigrants within the USA, barring families from the same opportunities others who have just arrived receive. The situation is also intensified when we realize there is a lack of transparency within the whole visa application system, how there is no clear answer as to when the new policies will be implemented, or how one should actually prepare for their green card interview.
It’s all become a crossword puzzle, with immigration lawyers and families desperate for answers, holding onto others who have been through the process for an ounce of moral support. So, will these policies implemented starting in 2022 really be effective, noting how convoluted the immigration system has become?
The future now lies in how the USCIS can gauge the number of immigrants who require visas, the years they have lived, and what types of visas are meant to be distributed. Amongst the controversy surrounding the backlog, President Biden has launched a plan since the beginning of 2022, consisting of various policies and steps to alleviate the backlog. An important solution is the need to act upon the situation.
The 117th Congress has definitely launched bipartisan proposals each one of them could assuage the backlog little by little. There shouldn’t be hesitation as this issue goes beyond economic and social implications; many immigrate to the USA in hopes of the happiness, liberty, and citizenship granted within the Constitution and upheld by the nation and its politicians.
Compared to previous years, failure to act and pass legislation will become the main reason for millions of immigrants from receiving their permits or visas. The youth must also speak upon the issue, presenting their testimonies in front of state Senates to ensure both aisles act.
For example, Improve the Dream is a youth-led organization aiming to empower young immigrants who have grown up as child dependents of visa holders, becoming one of the largest organizations to aid those affected by the immigration process. Such involvement is one of the many ways ordinary immigrants and the youth can help create change. Any step is enough to pave the way to issue visas to the people who need them (Improve the Dream).
There have been a few policies explicitly known to the public, aiming to ease the rising tension with backlogs in visa distribution. However, the issue is the viability of each step. On March 15th, the Omnibus Appropriations Bill was passed, increasing the USCIS fund by 700% to accommodate rising asylum backlogs, improve refugee processing, and address the overall backlog for the visa process. The White House even requested increased funding for other departments that handle immigration issues (Boundless).
However, funding isn’t the only aspect here to decrease the backlog; to ensure the process is much more efficient, there needs to be a rise in workers or reliance on automated systems to process documentation. Just as taxes, voting, and financial aid processes are done through an online system, the USCIS must work on such a system and database that provides information at one click of the name and adds a few more clicks to approve a certain aspect of the procedure for visa application and naturalization.
Although it might be odd to hire more staff with a labor shortage, it would be easier to combat such an obstacle if President Biden and the Senate pass legislation allowing H1-B visa holders’ spouses to gain a work permit, increasing the amount of possible skilled workers. A clause could also be added during the passage of the legislation detailing a potential job within the USCIS and related immigration offices with a decent working wage for the spouses.
The USCIS also implemented the Implementation of the Emergency Stopgap USCIS Stabilization act which sets new timeframes and adds a premium process. However, the premium processing covers a variety of conditions, trying to tackle the problem at once (Above the Law).
The two main areas of focus on how to fix the backlog are immigrants who have entered/tried to enter America for work such as H1-B or H-2A Visa holders, which accounts for approximately over 50% of those in line for earning an EAD and a Green Card. As mentioned, the ratio of those granted the actual work authorization Visa to those incoming has a huge gap which is further amplified when you realize there are over millions of long-standing immigrants to America who have yet to receive an EAD or Green Card.
Moreover, the premium process could also differ based on companies and different “standards” of workers, such as those in larger companies or specialized fields such as doctors would have easier access and no problem with the cost even when they join a premium process. This is where extra funding comes in for the government and USCIS to cover the huge costs of submitting, ensuring the process of submission is smoother.
There has been other legislation passed through the 117th Congress such as the Jumpstart Act, Citizenship Act, and RELIEF Act which tackle backlogs by eliminating country caps (FWD). Although this allows for a larger number of visas to be approved, the process will be just as long for Visa applications due to excess interviews, piles of documentation, etc.
Applicants print out piles of documentation, have them sent out, and sometimes resent them due to one mistake such as name, and attend less than 20-minute interviews whose preparation takes over months. It’s essential we implement an automated system online, just like we do for voting and taxes. A few clicks should be enough to fill out the information, scan any necessary documentation, and upload it.
The process would save many applicants time and allow for a few clicks to determine approval of the Visa or Green Card. Lastly, the system created must be included with a comprehensive guide related to the USCIS and different immigration application processes, ensuring applicants are well informed and understand the necessary steps. They can refer to this guide whenever, and all the information is consolidated within one area.
It is expected that despite the backlog of 200,000 green cards and over one million potential H1-B holders, the USCIS’ implementation of multiple (over ten) policies will cut the backlog by 9.5 million, which is approximately three decades' worth of Visas given within the span of a year.
Although the number seems promising, the US immigration system must take into consideration the way of approaching the backlogs and not just the number. If less than two million H1-B visas are processed over eight years, there is no guarantee that eliminating caps is going to drastically decrease the backlog without a timeline and solid plan in mind.
It is essential to keep in mind moreover that the solutions presented for backlogs must keep in mind the incoming flow of immigrants to ensure the rate of Visa approval is consistent and fast even into the future (CBS). Even after dealing with the backlog, there are quite a few issues with the immigration system, yet by working quickly, the USCIS can turn around the fate of many immigrants.
The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Marielle DeVos, Paul Kramer, Sydni Faragalli, Carlos Bindert, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the 2022 Summer Fellowship program within the Institute.
Bhavyasri Suggula. The Backlog in Visa Distribution: The Immigration Crisis of the Usa. Institute for Youth in Policy, 20 Sept. 2022, https://yipinstitute.org/fellowship-projects/the-backlog-in-visa-distribution-the-immigration-crisis-of-the-usa.