When I meet clients who want to start their immigration cases, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is: how long it will take for my case to be adjudicated? At this point, my answer is more vague than I would like it to be; the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website provides an estimated time range between 9 months and 21 months for the Adjustment of Status to permanent residence, and 4 to 6 months for work authorization (though I know from personal experience that some cases take longer than 7 months). My client asks again, “I need to make a plan for the future. Will it be 9 months or 21 months? And for a valid work authorization, is it 4 months, 6 months, or longer? I got a job offer and need to let my employer know.”
USCIS processes millions of petitions and applications each year such as temporary and permanent visa classifications, adjustment of status to permanent residence, work authorization, naturalization, and so on. Depending upon the filing type, adjudication may occur at one of more than 100 locations across the country, including the National Benefits Center, 5 service centers, more than 80 field offices, and several other international operations offices. USCIS seems to have more applications coming their way than they can possibly handle in a reasonable time. If USCIS cannot offer an approval based on the received materials, they may send what is called a Request for Additional Evidence, or RFE. Because of this inefficiency, adjudications are backlogged or delayed. It also causes a lack of reliable data provided by USCIS for processing times
Unclear expectations of processing time is more than just inconvenience. Those who file with USCIS or could be affected by the application – employers, individuals and their family members, and attorneys – have a strong interest in knowing the status of their filings and how long it will take to complete the process. Due to inaccurate, outdated, and unreliable data predicting processing times, individuals can lose jobs and various benefits like health care while they wait for the process to unfold. Foreign individuals and their families may face separations and financial hardship. They may be forced to postpone or cancel employment opportunities. They may have to postpone or cancel travel plans and miss important events. They may have to give up any chance to get academic scholarship or may not be able to renew their driver’s licenses. For employers, they may not be able to hire new or retain existing employees, forcing them to use additional resources to hire and train replacements for those who could not continue to work.
In recent years, there have been efforts in private industry to provide more reliable methods for predicting processing times and/or tracking USCIS case status. USCIS has also announced and launched a pilot to test a redesigned processing time estimator and a new way of collecting data and calculating the processing times. Recent technologies have the potential to remove a great deal of uncertainty from the US immigration process; big data and predictive analytics with machine learning and AI are increasingly impacting the way we process legal documents.
Improvements for reliable processing times and the ability to accurately track the status of immigration cases will have very positive effects on foreign workers, their employers, and the US economy. Further, these new technologies will benefit immigration lawyers like me, too.