Immigration agency resumes processing U.S.-based green cards

USCIS had put a ‘hold’ on US-based green card applicants

The Justice Department oversees the Executive Office of Immigration Review. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Justice Department oversees the Executive Office of Immigration Review. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 17, 2020 at 2:22pm

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that adjudicates visas and green cards, told staff the agency is “resuming processing” of all applications for permanent residency from within the country. 

CQ Roll Call reported last week that “a general hold” had been put on the adjudication of applications from U.S.-based immigrants hoping to obtain green cards. According to internal guidance and emails, the hold applied both to cases that required in-person interviews and certain cases in which these interviews could be waived. Specific categories of applicants were exempt from the hold, the communications said. 

That hold has since been lifted, according to an email USCIS sent Tuesday and viewed by CQ Roll Call.

“As you know, the pause enabled us to focus on several priority issues such as freezing up capacity ... to work cases that supported the efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic and to focus on cases pending oath ceremonies,” the email to senior USCIS staffers said.

A USCIS statement said the change stemmed from the ability to resume citizenship proceedings that had been postponed by the pandemic and were the agency's higher priority.

"Now that USCIS anticipates that we will conduct nearly all postponed naturalization ceremonies by the end of July, we are resuming adjustment of status interviews, citizenship interviews and other in-person services in offices where necessary health and safety protocols are in place," the statement said. 

In its previous guidance to employees, USCIS had tied the processing hold to President Donald Trump’s executive order in April that suspended the entry of most immigrants from overseas. That proclamation, however, had exempted green card applicants who already lived in the United States. 

[Trump announces temporary suspension of green cards]

USCIS acknowledged last week it posted that material on “an internal webpage used by headquarters staff to maintain records of guidance" but said it contained “incorrect information" and has since been taken down. 

“This post has been removed and does not reflect current adjudication guidance,” the agency said at the time.  

But updated guidance by USCIS suggested that agency officers were told the processing hold remained in place even after the initial webpage post was removed, which created confusion among some employees. 

A senior USCIS officer, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, told CQ Roll Call that some field adjudicators were told to stop processing these green card applications back in April. A separate field office employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said no one mentioned the hold until May.  

Both USCIS employees expressed concern at the way the policy was communicated, but were unable to pinpoint if this happened because of an intentional move by the administration to block green cards or from careless implementation. 

"I think the priorities listed later make sense with the pandemic, so the guidance was just poorly written is my gut," the senior official said.

The USCIS said about 45,000 U.S.-based permanent residence applications had been completed between March 30 and June 1, but it's not clear how many of those were outside the exemption categories listed in the agency's hold guidance. Based on fiscal 2019 statistics, roughly 107,000 applications would have been typically been completed during that period.

The USCIS, which is entirely funded by application fees, has sought $1.2 billion in emergency funding from Congress because of a shortfall it said was caused by a drop in applications amid the pandemic.

According to the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, the union representing USCIS workers, 70 percent of the agency’s workforce is expected to be furloughed if Congress fails to replenish the agency’s coffers. Furlough notices may go out this week. 

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