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USCIS opens new center to address backlog

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is opening a new service center to try to fix some of its worst backlogs. USCIS has already reassigned 150 employees and plans to have over 300 to staff this virtual service center.

Due to it being virtual it won’t be named after its location like most centers. It will be named the HART Service Center after the types of cases it plans to adjudicate: Humanitarian, Adjustments, Removing Conditions, and Travel Documents. USCIS has confirmed that the new virtual center will process four types of forms which involve urgent cases involving violence, persecution, and/or family unity and have become subject to processing delays of over a year to five years.

Here are a list of the four types of forms it will process.

  • “Bona fide determinations” for U visa applicants (Form I-918). The U visa, which provides legal status to victims of crimes who help law enforcement with investigations, has a horribly long wait list since Congress allows only 10,000 visas to be issued a year. U-visa applicants are placed on a wait list while they await one of those 10,000 visas. The wait list itself – which comes with work authorization and prosecutorial discretion in the form of deferred action currently takes five years to adjudicate. In 2021, after facing intense litigation pressure, USCIS created a new process to ensure that U visa applicants can still work legally in the United States and receive drivers’ licenses and other services while their applications are pending. But while the “bona fide determination” – which certifies that the applicant has passed a background check and submitted a complete application – takes very little time, it’s already created a bottleneck of its own. It takes five years for the existing service centers to process 80% of cases .

  • Petitions for status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (Form I-360). The Violence Against Women Act created a way for immigrant survivors of domestic violence to self-petition for legal status. This allows survivors to stay in the United States, work legally, and become eligible for permanent residency and citizenship without having to rely on a spouse or relative – who might be abusing them or protecting an abuser – to petition for them through family-based immigration channels. VAWA self-petitions are an essential tool in allowing survivors to leave abusive households, since it deprives abusers of control over both their legal status in the U.S. and their ability to earn a living. But the only service center currently processing these applications is taking 33 months – nearly three years – to process 80 percent of them, forcing survivors to wait in a potentially dangerous state of limbo.

  • Provisional waivers of the “unlawful presence” bar for green card applicants (Form I-601A). Immigrants who otherwise qualify for green cards, via petitions from U.S. citizen or permanent resident relatives or based on employment, can still be barred from receiving them based on having been unlawfully present in the United States now or in the past. These immigrants can apply for a waiver if keeping them from the United States would create “extreme hardship” for a U.S. citizen spouse or parent. But if the immigrant leaves the U.S. for their required visa interview before the waiver is approved, they can end up stuck outside the country for years before receiving a waiver to return.

Over the last five years processing times for these waivers grew sixfold from 2017 to 2022. At the two service centers where USCIS decides these waivers, it is taking three years at one center and three and a half years at another service center to decide 80% of these waivers. The ballooning delays led to a lawsuit, which identifies 300 named plaintiffs who applied for waivers in 2021 or earlier and have not yet received them. The lawsuit also seeks to certify a class of people who have a waiver pending for more than 12 months. Attorneys in the lawsuit estimate that class would include at least 70,000 people.

  • Family reunification petitions for families of people granted asylum (Form I-730). One of the benefits of being formally granted asylum or refugee status is the ability to bring your spouse and children to the United States. But in addition to the backlogs plaguing asylum applications themselves, immigrants granted asylum now have to wait a year or longer to get permission to reunite with their families. Similarly, a migrant who comes to the United States with refugee status is subject to the same long wait times. One of the two service centers currently processing these forms is taking over a year to adjudicate 80% of applications; the other is taking nearly two years. The delays not only prolong the suffering of people who have dealt both with persecution in their home countries and with the stress and trauma of fleeing to the United States and waiting for asylum here; they increase the danger of family members who could still be targeted and persecuted in their home countries while waiting for permission to join relatives in the U.S

USCIS estimates that the new HART Service Center will be fully operational by fall of 2024.

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