Immigration officials have made steady progress in the time it takes to process asylum seekers’ work permits, following a failed bid to hold the government in contempt over worsening delays.
The share of work permit applications US Citizenship and Immigration Services processed within a court-mandated 30-day timeline plummeted to under 5% last year—a result, government lawyers said, of a spike in those applications. But by April 2023, that figure rebounded to 44.4% of work permits being processed within a month, according to a USCIS compliance report.
There were more than 708,000 pending asylum applications at the end of last year, according to USCIS data.
The improvement in the percentage of applications the agency is processing within the 30-day deadline comes amid a federal district judge’s dismissal of a 2020 lawsuit over a Trump administration regulation that extended the wait time before asylum seekers could apply for work permits. Judge Paula Xinis of the US District Court for the District of Maryland, who blocked the regulation in 2020, ruled last week that the case was moot after a separate federal judge vacated the rule in 2022.
Asylum applicants aren’t eligible for a work permit until 180 days after they file their asylum claims. But processing backlogs mean they often end up waiting additional months for approval once they complete work permit applications.
Ongoing failures to meet the 30-day timeline led plaintiffs in a separate class action to file contempt motions in August and again in January. A federal district judge in Washington state declined to hold USCIS in contempt despite acknowledging that the agency wasn’t complying with the deadline.
Processing times have substantially improved from where they were when plaintiffs filed the contempt motion against the government last year, said Zachary Manfredi, litigation and advocacy director at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that filed separate litigation over work eligibility restrictions.
“USCIS did start allocating greater resources to the processing of these applications,” he said. “If they continue to devote the same resources to processing these applications, they may achieve substantial compliance within the next few months.”
An agency spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on processing times.
Despite last week’s dismissal of the suit over the Trump regulation, Manfredi said the case achieved significant recent wins, including online updates to the instructions for seeking work permits as well as electronic regulations on the program.
Although the government didn’t make a formal commitment on a timeline to meet the 30-day processing deadline, USCIS has stated that it aims to be compliant by July, he said.
Wendi Garcia, a member of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project and a plaintiff in the challenge to the Trump regulations, said she participated in the lawsuit after finding out the policy wouldn’t have allowed her to seek a work permit for a year after submitting an asylum claim.
“When you arrive in this country, it is very difficult to find a place to live and a way to get around,” she said in a statement. “And with two children, you need to work. I had to be able to feed my kids.”
Providing asylum seekers with work permits is critical not only for those migrants to be able to provide for themselves and their families, but also to reduce strain on community organizations and local governments struggling to provide assistance to those populations.
Federal lawmakers and local leaders say the Biden administration could do more to speed up processing times.
In March, more than 50 mayors and county executives called on USCIS to speed up work permit processing. Those delays not only wreak havoc on the lives of asylum seekers and parolees, but “also place significant burdens on receiving communities,” they said in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) this week also slammed the 180-day waiting period just to be able to apply for work eligibility. There are thousands of job openings in the state that asylum seekers could fill, she said at a press conference with New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
Senate Democrats earlier this month also told the Biden administration it should allow states to sponsor immigrants for parole, a temporary status that would allow them to immediately seek employment authorization.
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