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Record lawsuits challenge immigration application delays

A backlog of immigration applications is compelling more applicants to consider lawsuits against the federal government.
Sarah Elizabeth
A backlog of immigration applications is compelling more applicants to consider lawsuits against the federal government.

This story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE and La Noticia. You can read it in Spanishat La Noticia. Puedes leer la nota en españolen La Noticia.

The federal government is facing a record number of lawsuits over processing delays for immigration applications.

More than 6,000 such lawsuits have already been filed this fiscal year. That’s about three times as many annual lawsuits as two years ago, according to data analysts at Syracuse University.

In North Carolina, attorneys say the delays are extending family separations and hurting businesses.

Last year, US Citizenship and Immigration Services received about 9 million applications — the highest number since 2017.

The increase isn’t why the agency is taking longer to process applications, however.

Charlotte-based immigration attorney Doug Thie said the backlog began building before the pandemic.

“We're seeing partially due to COVID, partially due to the change in administration and backlogs from the previous administration, processing times for applications that have ballooned — that would probably be the only appropriate word,” Thie said.

Wait times vary widely, depending on the type of application and the complexity of the case.

For U visas, granted to victims of crime, USCIS currently estimates a five-year wait to complete most cases.

For spouses of U.S. citizens, green card applications take about 20 months at the Charlotte processing center. Immigration attorney Jessica Alatorre said that wasn’t the case until recently.

“Before, I had never told anyone more than 12 months, and that was saying, that's if your case really takes longer because you have a bigger file,” Alatorre said.

During the Trump administration, Alatorre said clients started receiving more requests for in-person interviews and more requests for evidence. Then came USCIS spending cuts, a hiring freeze and staff furloughs in 2020, all contributing to the current backlog.

“There was no focus. It was, ask them for more on everything. Under the Biden administration, I think that there's been a concerted effort to dwindle it down to the specific issue,” Alatorre said.

USCIS has publicly recognized the problem. In March, the agency announced plans to hire more staff and strive toward faster processing times, ranging from two weeks to six months.

With the agency receiving millions of applications a year, Thie explained the importance of processes that function properly.

“It's a large bureaucratic behemoth where efficiency is essential. And it's something that under the previous administration, efficiency was not a focus.

“It is something that touches all aspects of everyday life. It touches businesses. It touches families. It touches churches, religious organizations.”

Extended waits can mean missing out on major life milestones and separation of U.S. citizens from family members, Thie added.

“In that 12- to 24-month period that you're waiting for a child to get the green card, that's, you know, learning to walk, learning to talk, learning the alphabet — moments that parents, unfortunately, might not be there for,” Thie said.

Filing a lawsuit to compel government action, known as a writ of mandamus, can cause a lot of anxiety in applicants, Alatorre said.

“A writ of mandamus doesn't say that the outcome is going to be in your favor,” Alatorre said. “So clients are often facing the sort of impossible decision between just keep waiting, bearing and grinning because you have no other option. Or file this lawsuit that could encourage a negative decision faster.”

While the ultimate decision may not be in the applicant’s favor, Alatorre said lawsuits to compel action do work.

“What we've seen is that once the lawsuit was filed, we pretty quickly get a call from the government attorney wishing to discuss settlement, wishing to discuss dismissal,” Alatorre said. “What this shows us is that suing the government works in favor of individuals.”

One major deterrent to filing a lawsuit, however, can be the cost. Thie said many opt for the waiting game due to financial constraints.

Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.