The processing backlog for green card renewals, as well as naturalization cases, is now revealing the impact of a whole new delay: the issuance of U.S. passports. Newly admitted citizens who had to wait almost two years to naturalize now find themselves waiting to get passports, tripping up all kinds of international travel plans, including emergency visits.
The legal permanent resident card, also known as the green card, is an essential document for proving one’s U.S. residency status. One must have it when traveling internationally and to prove work authorization when seeking employment. These cards are generally issued for 10 years, with a few exceptions. Renewals using Form I-90 used to take just a few months to process; since COVID-19, they have been taking over a year. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) website reports that the processing time for most cases is 13 months and statistics show that almost 1 million green card renewal cases are pending. The problem is multifold.
In theory, I-90 renewal receipts extend lawful status for 12 months, during which the holder can travel internationally. But there has been inconsistent treatment at U.S. borders and airports for people traveling with this document. Quite often, they face extra scrutiny and unkind treatment from officers. Sometimes they have difficulty boarding airplanes.
A bigger problem at present is that given the processing backlog, the 12-month receipt has started to expire for many people. So, even if a receipt could allow travel, an expired receipt is no help at all. You simply cannot travel, and USCIS has not started issuing new I-90 receipts to replace expired ones.
To avoid unnecessary stress and the possibility of being denied reentry to the U.S., I-90 receipt holders can visit the local USCIS office and request an I-551 stamp in their passport to prove valid status. It’s an old-fashioned ink-pad stamp that immigration officers use sparingly and only when justifiably required.
However, even before COVID-19, USCIS made it difficult to make these appointments. During the Trump era, “Infopass” appointments, as they are known, were eliminated almost overnight. And with the COVID-19 shutdown, it became impossible to seek in-person assistance for almost all types of cases.
Currently, an applicant must speak with agents over the phone to make an appointment. You’re lucky if you’re able to reach someone, and even if you do, it is difficult to find appointment availability. And even if there is availability, without a plane ticket to travel outside the country, you may not actually get a stamp. The stamp together with the expired green card and passport from the home country will allow you to travel internationally.
As all this was unfolding, and many people found themselves in limbo, some who qualified for U.S. citizenship filed while they waited. In most cases, green card holders may apply for citizenship after five years of residency. And as citizens, they are eligible for a U.S. passport which allows easy, often visa-free travel to many countries in the world.
However, the processing of citizenship cases has been severely backlogged, too. The processing time went from about six months to more than two years. Now, it’s anywhere between 18 and 24 months.
Many applicants have minor children, and those under 18 can derive U.S. citizenship through their parents. However, when they turn 18, children age out of this privilege, as has been the case for many due to the delay, and must file their own application, facing the same delays as their parents.
Recently, to USCIS’s credit, naturalization processing times have been reduced a little, and citizenship oath ceremonies are being conducted regularly at the Seattle USCIS office, which is likely the case around the country, too.
Once a person is granted citizenship, they are required by law to use their U.S. passport for any international travel. They can no longer use the passport from their home country to exit or re-enter the United States.
But now the new challenge that people are facing, after finally receiving citizenship, is actually getting a passport. First-time passport applicants must apply in person at some U.S. Post Office locations. It can take months just to get an appointment, and some of my clients have been driving two to three hours to find a post office location with a shorter wait time.
Passport processing is another story. It’s taking two to three months for routine applications. Expediting can get it to you in five to eight weeks. And even though there is an emergency clause, unless it is a true life-and-death situation, the passport agency will not issue a passport any sooner.
One of my clients faced a terrible dilemma precisely because of these delays as she was preparing to travel abroad for an important, life-changing assignment that would take at least a year.
Her I-90 green card renewal receipt had expired around the same time she was called in for a naturalization interview. She passed, and ordinarily this would be a joyous occasion. But she was robbed of that joy because she was forced to make a difficult decision. She could move forward with a naturalization ceremony and risk not getting a U.S. passport in time to travel. Or she could postpone the oath ceremony and get an I-551 stamp in her home country passport now that she had an opportunity to explain her circumstances in person to an officer.
We paced up and down the hallways desperately discussing the best option for her. In the end, she decided that taking the oath and becoming a citizen now provided her with more flexibility with future travel needs. She drove six hours back and forth to apply for her passport in person.
The domino effect of one application delay affecting another and another is very real and has an adverse impact on people up and down the United States.
Tahmina Watson is the founding attorney of Watson Immigration Law in Seattle, where she practices US immigration law focusing on business immigration. She has been blogging about immigration law since 2008 and has written numerous articles in many publications. She is the author of Legal Heroes in the Trump Era: Be Inspired. Expand Your Impact. Change the World and The Startup Visa: Key to Job Growth and Economic Prosperity in America. She is also the founder of The Washington Immigrant Defense Network (WIDEN), which funds and facilitates legal representation in the immigration courtroom, and co-founder of Airport Lawyers, which provided critical services during the early travel bans. Tahmina is regularly quoted in the media and is the host of the podcast Tahmina Talks Immigration. She is a Puget Sound Business Journal 2020 Women of Influence honoree. Business Insider recently named her as one of the top immigration attorneys in the U.S. that help tech startups. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @tahminawatson.