Thousands of Lawsuits Have Been Filed Over Wait Times, Backlogs at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

While staffing up may alleviate the bottleneck, no amount of employees can keep the country's bad immigration system from working as designed.


Despite pledges from the Biden administration last year to combat processing delays and backlogs at U.S. immigration agencies, a new report published by Syracuse University finds that by the end of FY 2022 in September, over 6,000 lawsuits will have been filed against the federal government since September 2021 to compel action from U.S. immigration authorities. This is a 50 percent increase in lawsuits compared to the previous fiscal year. 

But President Joe Biden can only shoulder so much of the blame. Shortly after former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the federal government implemented a broad hiring freeze on all nonmilitary employees that lasted for several months. In February 2020, the Trump administration directly targeted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), freezing hiring for all nonasylum agent employees. Funded by the fees on paperwork submissions, USCIS' revenue dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic as applications dwindled, prompting the administration to furlough three-quarters of the government's immigration work force in the summer of 2020. Even though the furlough was resolved in August 2020 by Congress, many employees left the agency permanently, worried that it would become a permanent layoff. 

While Biden lifted that hiring freeze in March 2021, many experts say the effects will persist. "When you implement a hiring freeze, what you're actually doing is shrinking more personnel," Jorge Loweree, managing director of programs and strategy at the American Immigration Council, tells Reason. He notes that Trump's actions did not lessen the agency's load but merely stopped it from replacing workers lost to attrition. "USCIS has had to do essentially more work with less staff and fewer resources, which has led to a tremendous backlog across most form times."

As Loweree points out, these delays can be incredibly pressing for refugees applying for asylum or temporary protected status (TPS). "Your application can take seven months, potentially well over a year to be adjudicated," he said. "When your TPS designation is only in place for 18 months, that's a significant problem because you end up receiving a benefit for a far shorter period of time." 

A USCIS spokesperson pointed to what they see as promising trends in their processing ability: a 14 percent drop in the naturalization queue from January to September 2021, a reduction in the number of pending biometrics appointments from 1.4 million in January 2021 to 7,000 as of May 2022, and a full elimination of the "front-log" of cases awaiting intake processing that occurred in July 2021. They feel confident the agency will resolve these issues by the time it reaches its 95 percent hiring target by the end of 2022.

While staffing up may alleviate the federal government's current bottleneck, no amount of USCIS employees can keep the country's bad immigration system from working as designed. The larger problems with how we choose who can live here and for how long lie with U.S. immigration law and policy.

"Even if more agents are hired, aggressive streamlining will still be necessary," David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, tells Reason in an email. "It can't just be hiring more people without better systems."