After two years of travel restrictions, consulate closures and reduced operating capacity, the U.S. immigration system faces a tough climb to resume full functionality. Although U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced that in anticipation of an “exceptionally high” number of employment-based visas available this fiscal year it is committed to “attempting to use all these visa numbers,” green card processing delays continue to dismay employers and foreign nationals alike. Because many unused green cards go to waste at the end of the fiscal year, without further action from USCIS, these delays will unnecessarily deprive tens of thousands of eligible immigrants of permanent legal resident status this year. With record numbers of employment based green card applications waiting in line, any wasted green card causes wait times to increase even further.

To its credit, USCIS has already taken some practical steps to improve green card processing, including waiving interviews for some employment-based green card applicants. The agency also released guidance encouraging employers to transfer eligible applicants to the first- and second-preference employment-based categories where more numbers are available.

However, given the practical realities of processing delays, budgetary shortfalls and the high number of unused green cards last year, combined with ongoing pandemic uncertainty, companies and foreign national employees remain concerned that the government will again fail to issue the full number of green cards by the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, 2022.

As immigration attorneys who formerly served at USCIS, we recognize the operational challenges to efficient green card processing, the impact of green card delays on U.S. businesses and their employees who are waiting in long queues, and the need for further changes. To improve USCIS’s chance to fully utilize available visa numbers, we suggest four actions USCIS should take.

First, USCIS should designate “tiger teams” at each Service Center that would tackle the required number of cases to reach the cap and provide proper supervisory review to ensure the integrity of each case. Originally utilized by NASA to avert disaster on the Apollo 13 mission, tiger teams consist of experienced specialists selected for their experience, energy, and imagination, who will focus on addressing institutional problems and streamlining processes to achieve their goals. USCIS has used tiger teams in the past and should reinstate this approach to create dedicated teams that will relentlessly focus on green card processing hindrances and improve performance.

Second, USCIS should reduce the volume of cases sent to its Field Offices for interview by setting up an effective waiver process for cases posing no eligibility or security concerns. Where USCIS does require interviews, it should conduct them via video whenever appropriate so that any Field Office with capacity can adjudicate the case. This would help avoid scheduling challenges associated with arranging in-person interviews at Field Offices around the country and prevent delays.

Third, the agency should extend the validity of the required medical exam for green card applicants. Last summer, USCIS temporarily extended the validity from two years to four years, but that policy expired Oct. 1, 2021. Re-implementing the longer validity period for medical exams would help alleviate additional delays by reducing the frequency of applicants having to renew their medical examinations.

Finally, USCIS should streamline its handling of case files, both by consolidating related case files early in processing and by increasing digitization efforts. An audit by the DHS Office of the Inspector General identified manual processing as a primary obstacle to USCIS processing speed and recommended USCIS fully digitize its workload. USCIS must accelerate its progress in digitization, electronic filings, and electronic adjudications to improve its processing times across the agency.

USCIS can implement some of these suggestions quickly, while others—such as full digitization—will take years to realize. However, each investment USCIS makes to improve processing speed and reduce green card backlogs will benefit the agency itself, foreign nationals, their employers, and the U.S. economy. One report estimates that wasted green cards reduce U.S. GDP by billions each year. Enabling efficient pursuit of the American dream by improved green card processes not only benefits immigrants, but also aids business productivity, inspires innovation, and provides a needed boost to U.S. economic recovery.

Kelli Duehning is a Partner with Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP. She advises clients on immigration compliance and program strategy. Kelli joined BAL after a 17-year career with USCIS and INS where she headed the agency’s legal strategies in the western U.S.

Steven Plastrik is a Senior Associate with BAL’s Government Strategies team. He advises clients on immigration compliance and H-1B regulations and policies. Steve previously served as Associate Counsel at USCIS’s Vermont Service Center where he advised officers on employment-based nonimmigrant eligibility.

This article was originally published in Law360 on Mar. 28, 2022.

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