How U.S. Visa Delays Are Taking a Costly Toll on Frustrated Workers

Delayed work permits mean some immigrants risk losing their jobs, even as the U.S. experiences labor shortages.

More than a million immigrants are waiting for U.S. work permits, cutting many of them out of the job market when labor is in short supply.

Processing times for visas and work permits soared after embassies and immigration offices closed for months due to the pandemic, creating a backlog of cases that the immigration agency is still struggling to work through and highlighting what critics say is the cumulative effect of years of dysfunction.

President Joe Biden ran on improving the immigration system and unwinding restrictive policies implemented during the Trump administration, but processing times have continued to balloon even as some embassies and offices have reopened. The estimated wait time for a work permit has risen to eight to 12 months, up from about three months in 2020, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

That’s affecting workers like Waqar Aqeel, who graduated in December with a doctorate in computer science from Duke University and a signed job offer to start at Google in the new year. An immigration delay of more than four months caused him to nearly lose out on the opportunity.

Although his work permit was approved in October, Aqeel, 29, had to push back his start date multiple times after USCIS failed to send him the card, which he needed in-hand to start work. It was only after Aqeel hired a lawyer and threatened to sue that the government finally produced his work permit — less than three weeks before a deadline to start work or potentially have to return to his native Pakistan.

As an expert in Internet privacy and security, Aqeel is the kind of hire that U.S. tech companies are competing to attract. Google has been willing to wait for his work authorization to come through, but the fear that he would lose the opportunity was never far from his mind, Aqeel said in an interview.

He was “at risk of losing the offer because they’re not going to wait forever,” he said.

The number of pending work permits has soared during the pandemic, with nearly 1.5 million applications at the close of the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, compared to about 649,000 at the end of the previous fiscal year. By contrast, there were 10.9 million U.S. job vacancies at the end of December.

On the Sidelines

The number of pending work permits more than doubled in 2021

Source: USCIS quarterly data on pending employment authorization (I-765) applications for fiscal years ending Sept. 30.

As they wait for their permits, skilled immigrants like Aqeel are forced to dip into savings to cover immigration costs and life expenses. Furthermore, a lack of transparency about the process — Aqeel says he has no idea why USCIS wouldn’t send him his work authorization card right away — means that immigrants have very little recourse other than suing in federal court, an expensive and time-consuming process.

“Right now I devote my entire career to suing USCIS and the state department to challenge these ridiculous, unreasonable and unfair processing times,” Josh Goldstein, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, said in an interview. “It’s absolutely out of control.”

Google is encouraged that the Biden administration has made improvements in processing certain work permits, but there is still work to be done, company spokesman José Castañeda said in an emailed statement.

“These delays can cause uncertainty for employers, employees and their families,” he said. “We continue to call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration legislation that improves employment-based visa programs that enhance American competitiveness and gives greater assurance to immigrant workers and employers.”

Immigration Services

Ur Jaddou, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, acknowledged last month that processing times have become too long and have affected the livelihood of immigrants.

“USCIS has implemented new policy and operational improvements to reduce both the number of pending cases and overall processing times,” a spokesman for the agency said in an emailed statement. The government has implemented several measures to limit work-permit processing delays, including lengthening the visa validity time and offering automatic extensions for certain categories of visas, he added.

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Allison McNeely