Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began in early 2020, there have been significant disruptions to certain U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) operations, particularly those involving local field offices and Application Support Centers (ASCs). We recently reported on the impact of USCIS office closures, particularly with respect to Employment Authorization Document issuance, scheduling of Adjustment of Status and Naturalization interviews, and mailing of receipt notices.
As a routine step in many applications for immigration benefits, including applications to adjust to permanent resident status, applications to change or extend nonimmigrant status, and applications for employment authorization or travel authorization, applicants are generally required to appear at a USCIS Application Support Center where their biometrics (fingerprints and photograph) are collected. Under normal circumstances, USCIS typically schedules these appointments within a month or two after the submission of the underlying benefit application. However, due to the pandemic, USCIS has experienced significant delays in scheduling ASC appointments to collect biometrics, which in turn results in lengthier processing times for approval of these applications.
Recently, USCIS issued a Stakeholder Message offering additional insight into the current delays plaguing Application Support Centers – and specifically the tremendous backlog in biometrics appointment scheduling. In its Stakeholder Message, USCIS reported that nearly 300,000 ASC appointments were canceled between March and June when USCIS offices were temporarily closed to the public. Although USCIS began a phased re-opening in July, ASCs were operating at less than 50% of normal capacity from July to September, and, since late October, have still only been operating at approximately 65% of pre-COVID levels. USCIS reports that it is scheduling approximately 10,400 appointments per day, but there are currently 1.3 million applications awaiting biometrics appointments.
While there are limited circumstances in which USCIS may reuse biometrics previously submitted for a different application, not all applications meet the requirements for biometrics reuse. Consequently, applicants should continue to expect lengthier-than-normal processing times for most benefit applications as long as wait-times for biometrics appointments remain high.
The following are a few representative examples of the impacts of biometric delays:
- Delay in I-765/EAD adjudications:
Form I-765 is used to apply for an Employment Authorization Document (“EAD”). Those who already have an EAD cannot apply for a renewed document more than 6 months prior to the expiration date of their current EAD. In light of biometrics delays, many EAD adjudications are taking longer than 6 months, thus rendering the applicant ineligible to work while waiting for a new EAD, unless they fall within one of the few EAD categories that offer an automatic 180-days extension while the application is pending;
- Delay in I-539 adjudications:
Form I-539 is used to apply for a change of status or extension of stay for certain nonimmigrant classifications including B-1/B-2 visitor status and/or many dependent statuses such as H-4 or L-2. In the past, USCIS would frequently adjudicate the I-539 application for a dependent simultaneously with that of the principal applicant, which is usually filed on Form I-129, and would extend the 15-day Premium Processing adjudication window to the I-539s of dependents as a courtesy. However, due to the new requirement that I-539 applicants must now provide biometrics to USCIS, I-539 applications cannot receive the benefit of Premium Processing, and often take 6 months or longer to be adjudicated.
- Delay in Processing Reentry Permit applications
Lawful Permanent Residents who seek to spend an extended period of time outside of the United States without abandoning their status typically file an application for a Reentry Permit prior to their trip, using Form I-131. In order to apply for a Reentry Permit, the applicant must be physically present in the United States at the time of filing the application and also must be physically present in the United States in order to provide biometrics after filing. Historically, Reentry Permit applicants would be able to file the application, wait a couple of weeks for a biometrics appointment, attend the appointment, and then depart the U.S. Because of biometrics delays, however, Reentry Permit applicants are now often faced with a situation where they would have to either delay their travel abroad until the biometrics are complete, or depart the U.S. prior to receipt of the biometrics appointment notice and then return to the U.S. again solely for the purpose of attending the appointment.