As published in the Immigration Daily on August 23, 2021
USCIS should prioritize improving its efficiency in adjudicating initial I-765 employment authorization document applications for all groups, but in particular, for those qualifying through adjustment of status (c)(9). Prior to 2016, EADs were required to be issued within 90 days of filing the I-765 form. However, USCIS amended its regulations to remove the 90 day requirement after facing a class action lawsuit for failing to comply with its deadline. Thereafter, the processing times for (c)(9) EADs grew incrementally—3-5 months turned into approximately 5-7 months in 2020. As of the date of this article, the processing times for (c)(9) EADs are 8-10 months at the Texas Service Center, and 8-9.5 months at the National Benefits Center.
I note that EAD processing time issues are not confined to just the adjustment of status (c)(9) category. They are delayed across the board—asylum applicants can expect to wait up to 13 months, H-4 spouses 11.5-14.5 months, DACA applicants 6.5 to 10.5 months, etc. EAD processing times are long and arbitrary for almost all categories at this point. However, the focus of this article is on adjustment of status EADs.
The abovementioned (c)(9) EAD processing delays have left many adjustment of status applicants in unjustifiably tough circumstances. This 8-10 month wait in eligibility to take employment can cause severe financial hardship and career harm for those who do not have an underlying nonimmigrant status providing work authorization. USCIS may expedite EAD applications in limited circumstances for individuals who can prove one or more of the following criteria: (1) severe financial loss to the company or applicant will occur; (2) emergency and urgent humanitarian reasons; (3) clear USCIS error; (4) nonprofit organization whose request is in furtherance of cultural and social interests of the US; or (5) US government interests. In practice, however, these criteria are high standards to clear—for instance, it is not typically enough for USCIS to approve an expedite where an applicant states that he/she will lose a job or be set back financially. As such, expedite requests are most often unsuccessful. For typical cases not meeting expedite criteria, those with dual intent nonimmigrant visas such as H-1B and L-1 that are close to expiration at the time of I-485 / I-765 concurrent filing have a difficult choice to face. They may either wait for their EAD to arrive which may put them out of work for months causing career and business interruption as well as financial hardship to themselves and their families, or extend their employment nonimmigrant visas costing potentially thousands of dollars in application and attorney fees. As an example, one of my clients filed a concurrent I-485 / I-765 application 6 months prior to H-1B expiration and reasonably expected that the EAD should be adjudicated prior to H-1B expiration or at least very soon after. This client decided not to file an H-1B extension expecting that the EAD would soon be granted. This EAD application has now been pending for over 9 months, and the client has been out of work for the past 3 months and does not know when to expect to return to work—causing financial harm to the client’s family as well as the employer as the client’s role is essential to the company. The client also submitted an expedite request on grounds of severe financial loss to the client and the employer, which was summarily rejected.
As such, many adjustment of status applicants are facing a major problem in EAD processing times causing financial and career hardship to themselves and their families, as well as hardship to their employers. Standard or even serious levels of hardship do not meet the criteria for expedite. In my client’s rejection, USCIS conceded that the financial hardship appeared serious, but denied the expedite stating that my client did not “provide evidence of an extreme emergent need.” Therefore, proving severe financial hardship appears in practice to be a very high bar. It is understood that EAD delays are due to USCIS staffing shortages and the need to perform discretionary analysis as EADs are a USCIS discretionary benefit. However, adjudications on discretion in this context should not require extensive time and resources. Adjustment of status applicants will mostly remain in the United States during the pendency of their applications, so what difference in national security does allowing them to work during this time make? Also of note, a full discretionary analysis of the I-485 applicant’s favorable equities and unfavorable factors is performed at the I-485 adjudication stage—therefore, there is no need to perform two full fledged discretionary analyses for the same applicant. Any discretionary examination on an EAD application should be very limited in scope.
The good news regarding budgeting is that USCIS is projected to have a budget of $4,760,784,000 for FY2022, a nearly $500,000,000 increase over FY2021. An appropriate portion of these resources should be allocated to eliminate the backlog of adjustment of status EAD applications. With increased resources, USCIS should consider the following actions to meet this goal: (1) Re-enact a regulation mandating the completion of initial EAD adjudications within 90 days, or at the very least, a reasonable time frame so that applicants are not stuck without work for 10 months; (2) Lower the bar for an expedite request on an EAD to be successful. It should not take an absolute emergency to speed up an EAD application. For example, so long as one can show that he/she has been out of work for an unreasonable amount of time (say 2 months), and it has resulted in significant financial loss to the applicant, and harm to the employer, USCIS should grant the expedite—especially as EADs typically should not take very long to adjudicate; (3) provide guidance for USCIS to accept late filings on nonimmigrant visa petitions that confer work authorization for those who allowed their nonimmigrant employment statuses to expire anticipating sensible adjudication times for their EADs, and treat these extensions as timely filed. Doing such would be consistent with USCIS policy since in such a situation, a delay in filing an NIV extension is commensurate with the circumstances, and due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the applicant—for example, a reasonable expectation of an EAD being adjudicated within 3-5 months, which is not met as an EAD application is still pending a year after application; (4) allow premium processing of EADs. Indeed, the “Emergency Stopgap USCIS Stabilization Act” (HR 8089 passed the House of Representatives, HR 8337 passed Senate and signed by President incorporating HR 8089), signed into law on October 1, 2020 (Pub. L. No. 116-159), authorizes DHS to expand premium processing to some categories which are currently ineligible, including employment authorization. Under this law, EAD premium processing may be implemented without going through the standard regulatory process as long as the enacted fee not greater than $1,500 and processing time is not greater than 30 days. As of today, USCIS still has not enacted the expansion of premium processing to new categories. The most recent update USCIS has provided on this topic through a press release on October 16, 2020 stated: “Pub L. No. 116-159 also gives USCIS the ability to expand premium processing to additional forms and benefit requests, but USCIS is not yet taking that action. Any expansion of premium processing to other forms will be implemented as provided in the legislation.” USCIS should be urged to expeditiously enact expanded premium processing, especially for EAD applicants as EAD applications in general are taking unreasonably long to adjudicate, and leaving applicants in unjustifiably difficult situations. Enactment of expanded premium processing would benefit both EAD applicants and USCIS. Applicants would have an option to have a result within 30 days as long as they are willing to spend $1,500. USCIS in turn would receive up to $1,500 for a simple EAD adjudication done quickly, which should be an attractive proposition for the agency.