As the nation continues to undergo historic labor shortages, more than one million immigrants are still awaiting approval from the USCIS for work permits. Without approval, these immigrants may lose their existing jobs leaving their employers, many in critical industries, even more, short of labor.
Many employees have been left taking administrative leave as they await a new work permit. However, after 90 days, employers cannot hold positions for these workers by law. Formerly this was not an issue because an application for work permits only takes approximately 12 minutes for an immigration official to process. As a result, these would typically be processed quickly. This would allow immigrants to continue to be self-sufficient while they wait for the USCIS to process more complex applications such as visas which in many cases may take months for the agency to process.
However, the current backlog has reached a critical level, which has resulted in the agency becoming incapable of meeting the demand for even these applications. This issue is part of a general crisis that the legal immigration system currently faces, which has failed to see any significant reform in multiple decades.
As of now, it takes approximately eight months for the agency to issue a work permit at the USCIS’s National Benefits Center, which operates as the agency’s primary processing center. Before the pandemic, the bench was capable of meeting the 180-day goal, which federal law provides for processing work permits. However, as of the end of September, the agency had built a backlog of nearly one and a half million applications still pending.
This delay could hardly come at a worse time as at the close of December; there were close to 11 million unfilled positions in industries desperately short of workers. Many of these industries are already heavily reliant on foreign national workers, which due to the pandemic-related restrictions, have been traveling to the U.S. at a slower rate than usual. This makes it critical to use the existing immigrant population that is already available.
The USCIS has taken certain steps to reduce the problem, such as waiving the fingerprint requirements for certain applicants, exempting the spouses of particular visa holders from receiving separate work authorization, and extending the validity of specific work permits. The agency has also employed more staff. However, without additional regulatory action, it is clear this will not be enough to combat the backlog. Until further steps are taken, the wait times for virtually all applications cwith the USCIS will likely continue to be measured in months to years.
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