As the year 2019 closed, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had 5.5 million applications in various pending files, up nearly 2.2 million from the end of calendar year (CY) 2015. The applicants had sought one of 23 major benefits; we made no effort to tally a couple of dozen lesser ones. Some individuals were in two of more of these queues.
The biggest single category was for immediate and preference relatives, the stuff of chain migration, with 1,570,512 applications waiting for a decision. The total was nearly double what it was four years earlier. In this category a positive decision, in many cases, would simply put the individual into another waiting line, as most numerically limited immigration classes are over-subscribed, and have been for years, if not decades. Positive decisions in other cases, those of immediate relatives of citizens, for example, could lead to instant admission to the United States.
Were these trends a result of deliberate policy decisions made by the Trump administration, or simply the product of an under-funded bureaucracy struggling with ever-growing demands for immigration benefits? Maybe it was a mixture of both.
We wrote about three of the categories of benefit seekers earlier, and noted the backlogs of those seeking a U Visa because they were, or alleged that they had been, crime victims; those seeking citizenship; and a class of alien investors. In the first two instances, the backlogs grew substantially during the four calendar years in question (2015-2019) while that of the alien investors dipped a bit.
We decided to examine the trends more broadly for 23 different classes of migration benefits, all of which had 20,000 or more in the backlog at the end of 2015. The number of new applications, decisions, and the size of the pending file are all drawn from a long-standing USCIS data system, "Number of Service-wide Forms Fiscal Year to Date by Quarter and Year", which has so much information jammed into it that is hard to read without a magnifying glass.
What we found that, of the 23 categories of benefits, 16 had larger pending files (in six cases nearly doubled or more than doubled) at the end of 2019 than they did at the end of 2015, and seven had smaller ones. Most of those seven categories dealt with programs that were declining in size, such as Temporary Protected Status and the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The total number of pending cases at the end of 2015 was 3,356,984; four years later that number had grown to 5,538,609; the difference is nearly 2.2 million. In percentage terms, this was an increase of 65 percent. A table showing the major 23 categories of benefits is below.
Pending Applications for Migration Benefits
|Population||Total Q1, FY 2016||Total Q1, FY 2020||Numerical Difference||Pct. Difference|
|U Nonimmigrant Status Applications||108,623||257,837||149,214||137.40%|
|Remove Conditions on Residence||122,558||242,840||120,282||98.10%|
|Immediate and Preference Relatives||801,583||1,570,512||768,929||95.90%|
|Application for Naturalization (Non-Military)||384,850||649,021||264,171||68.60%|
|Renew/Replace Permanent Resident Cards||323,366||499,404||176,038||54.40%|
|Employment Authorization Documents||433,848||645,611||211,763||48.80%|
|Recognition of Citizenship Application||32,056||41,205||9,149||28.50%|
|Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status||81,046||100,842||19,796||24.40%|
|Other Adjustments of Status||23,803||28,827||5,024||21.10%|
|Immigrant Petitions for Workers||43,509||44,980||1,471||3.40%|
|Reentry Permit/Refugee Travel Document||24,100||22,000||-2,100||-8.70%|
|Nonimmigrant Worker Petitions||126,900||103,879||-23,021||-18.10%|
|Petitions by Entrepreneurs||21,988||17,468||-4,520||-20.60%|
|Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals||56,821||36,031||-20,790||-36.60%|
|Cuban Adjustment Act||24,960||13,149||-11,811||-47.30%|
|Temporary Protected Status||54,094||12,061||-42,033||-77.70%|
As we observed earlier, one way of making a decision is not to do so.
I am grateful to CIS intern Joshua Timko for his research assistance.