US IMMIGRATION: WHY DOES IT TAKE SO LONG?
Author by Edward Boreth
One of the most frequent questions I am asked is “Why is my immigration case taking so long?”. The usual follow up to this question is “My friend’s case did not take as long. He had his green card in 6 months!”. The best way to explain the discrepancy and the long waiting time is to explain the system. There are many different types of immigration cases and the processing times depend greatly on the type of case.
The Quota System
The U.S. immigration framework relies on a system of quotas for various immigration categories. Most immigrants become permanent residents either through an employer petition or a family petition. The law permits only 140,000 people to become permanent residents per year based on employment and 226,000 based on family member petitions. As soon as that number of people receive their permanent residence, all the remaining applicants are put on a waiting list for the following fiscal year. On many years, the number of applicants has far exceeded the quota, creating waiting lists that are years long. This means that those applicants waiting on the waiting on the list may already have an approved employment or family based petition, but they still have to wait until the immigrant visas becomes available.
To complicate things further, both the employment and family based groups are divided into categories, depending on the type of employment offered to the immigrant or the family relationship of the immigrant to the petitioning family member. The quota of immigrant visas is allocated between these categories. For example, in employment based categories, second preference is reserved for members of the professions holding advanced degrees or persons of exceptional ability. People who receive permanent residence in this category are limited to 28.6% of the worldwide employment-based preference level, plus any numbers not required by first preference. That means that only 40,040 people per year may immigrate based on job offers requiring Master’s degree. For family based categories, about 174,000 spouses and young children of permanent residents are allowed to immigrate to the US each year, but only 65,000 brothers and sisters of citizens are permitted.
Thus, because different categories have different quotas, the waiting times are different depending on the category. To prevent any one country from having a massive influx of immigrants into the U.S., the quota system also limits each country to 7% of the total immigration limit. Only four countries use up their 7% maximum each year – India, Mexico, China and the Phillippines. For immigrants from those countries, the waiting lists in some categories are much longer. For example, for immigrants from India or China obtaining permanent residence based on job offers requiring Master’s degree, the wait is approximately 10 years. For immigrants from all other countries in the same employment category there is no waiting period.
Avoiding the Quota
There are three family categories that are not subject to the quota – they are called immediate family categories, because no matter how many people apply for a green card in these categories, an immigrant visa is immediately available – there is no waiting list. These categories are spouses of citizens, minor children of citizens and parents of adult citizens. This is why the spouse of a citizen will get permanent residence about five years faster than the spouse of a permanent resident.
Often, clients call my office for an update on their case. When I tell them that the case has been filed and we are waiting for a response from USCIS, I frequently hear “ I’ve been calling you every week for the last three months, and that’s all you ever say! When will you tell me something new?” The fact is that lawyers have very little control over case processing times. There are hundreds of thousands of cases filed with USCIS, at various centers throughout the country. Case officers are often moved from one center to another, leaving open cases to their replacements. USCIS also assign processing priorities to certain types of cases over others, which means that the priority cases get more officers assigned to them, leaving all other cases on the slow track.
Faster with a lawyer?
I am often asked whether a lawyer can make the immigration process go faster. There is nothing an immigration attorney can do to make the immigrant visa waiting list shorter, or to speed up the normal processing time of an immigration application. However, an immigration lawyer can help you avoid unnecessary delays, by making sure that your case is filed at the correct location, with the correct evidence and documents. A missing document can cause a delay of months. An immigration lawyer can also help with time saving strategy. For example, a permanent resident may want to file a family petition for his wife and apply for US citizenship. Which should he do first to bring his wife here faster? The answer to that will depend on how long he has been a resident, and several other factors. In most cases, however, applying for citizenship will speed up the process of bring your family to the United States.
Benefits of Citizenship
In addition to helping bring family here, becoming a US citizen has a number of other significant benefits as well. Apart from being able to vote and run for office, a US citizen can live outside the United States for years, without ever losing the right to return. US citizens can apply for US government jobs. Even some private firms (usually ones that contract with the US government on security related projects) require US citizenship of its employees. US citizens are eligible for more types of public benefits. US citizens can travel to most of the Western Hemisphere and Europe without a visa. Perhaps most importantly, becoming a US citizen makes one immune from deportation and protects minor permanent resident children from possible deportation in the future (minor children usually become US citizens automatically when the parent becomes a US citizen).
Why I founded the Citizenship Clinic.
After 15 years of practicing law, during which I represented immigrants in criminal cases and immigration cases, I felt frustrated at the number of serious problems my clients could have avoided had they (or their parents) simply applied for US citizenship earlier. I wondered why it was that people who were qualified to apply for citizenship kept delaying it. I realized that many permanent residents are not aware of all the benefits of becoming a US citizen, or of the risks to them (or their children) of not becoming a US citizen. I also realized that many wait so long for their green cards, spend a lot of money on attorneys and filing fees, and spend a lot of time in attorneys’ offices and waiting rooms. By the time most people are ready to file for citizenship, they are hesitant to repeat the hassle and expense of their green card process.
So I came up with a solution. No, I cannot change the immigration system. I cannot get rid of quotas and long waiting lists. I cannot make USCIS decrease the filing fees for immigration forms. However, what I can do is make it cheaper and easier for permanent residents to apply for citizenship. Naturalization is the one thing an immigrant can do to bring his or her family to the United States faster. Making naturalization cheap and simple should remove most people’s hesitation in applying for it. It may not be a solution to the entire immigration backlog, but it is an important step for immigrant families.
At the Citizenship Clinic, we prepare and file citizenships applications for $299 for most cases. That’s the cheap part. (Unfortunately, the government still charges $675, and as I said before, I cannot make the government lower this fee). A real lawyer provides a consultation to every applicant and reviews every case. The simple part is that my clients do not need to come to my office to complete a citizenship case. We can handle everything by telephone and mail, so no need to take time off work or even leave the house (except to go to the USCIS interview and a fingerprint appointment). Of course, we are always happy to see our clients in our office, as well.
I am happy to do my small part in speeding up family reunions by helping immigrants become US citizens. The new US citizens are happy too. Now, they can bring their spouses and minor children to the US outside the quota system, petition for their parents, travel on a US passport, protect their minor children from future deportation, apply for US government jobs, live outside the United States without ever losing the right to return, and of course vote and run for office. I hope that someday there will be enough new citizens to vote for a reform of the immigration system, so that families do not have to wait for years to be reunited.
Any advice in this article may not apply to your specific situation, even if it seems similar in nature. The only way to obtain legal advice is by speaking with a qualified attorney and reviewing your specific circumstances. If you have any questions (about any immigration matter, not just citizenship), please call 1 (888) 528-REAL (7325) or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Edward Boreth is an immigration attorney who has practiced law for 15 years. He is a partner at Shapovalov & Boreth and a director of the Citizenship Clinic. He is also an avid cricket fan.