USCIS Has 5.5 Million Applications Pending, Up 2.2 Million from 2015

By David North on June 26, 2020

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
in the Obama and Trump Administrations

Population Total Q1, FY 2016 Total Q1, FY 2020 Numerical Difference Pct. Difference
Asylum Application 128,307 338,931 210,624 164.20%
U Nonimmigrant Status Applications 108,623 257,837 149,214 137.40%
Waivers 102,737 217,292 114,555 111.50%
Advance Parole 74,266 148,176 73,910 99.50%
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%
Asylum Adjustments 25,646 44,849 19,203 74.90%
Family-Based Adjustments 199,422 336,335 136,913 68.70%
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%
Employment-Based Adjustments 125,161 143,231 18,070 14.40%
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%
Refugee Adjustments 37,340 24,128 -13,212 -35.40%
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%
Total 3,356,984 5,538,609 2,181,625 65%

Source: " Number of Service-wide Forms Fiscal Year to Date by Quarterand Year", USCIS.

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.