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U.S. immigration agency to transfer citizenship paperwork from busy offices, hoping to reduce wait times

New U.S. citizens attend a naturalization ceremony at the Convention Center in Los Angeles on May 22. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Immigrants who have filed paperwork for green cards and for U.S. citizenship could see shorter wait times in some of the nation’s busiest cities as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services works to transfer cases out of overburdened offices to even out processing times across the country.

The strategy, which will apply only to applications for permanent residency — also known as green cards — or U.S. citizenship, probably will be a welcome respite to immigrant communities in cities such as St. Paul, Minn., where some applicants wait up to two years to become citizens. Immigrants in other places could see the process lengthen.

It is unclear if the plan will have an impact on the staggering application backlog that has grown during the Trump administration and has drawn a growing tide of bipartisan criticism from immigration advocates, business leaders and lawmakers.

Number of people who became U.S. citizens reached five-year high in fiscal 2018

About 25 percent of the 5.6 million immigration cases in the backlog are those with pending green card or naturalization applications; a population that includes, among others, the husbands and wives of U.S. citizens; acclaimed scientists and professors; and the children of refugees.

USCIS said Monday that it would begin transferring caseloads of applicants for citizenship and permanent residency among its various field offices with the aim of reducing the “differences in processing times based on geographic locations.”

“In recent years, there has been an extraordinary demand for USCIS’ services,” agency spokeswoman Jessica Collins said in a statement. “This will help restore balance to workloads across USCIS field offices with the overall goal of reducing processing times and providing improved service delivery. We strive to adjudicate all applications, petitions, and requests as effectively and efficiently as possible in accordance with all applicable laws, policies, and regulations.”

Though the shift is likely to reduce wait times in some of the busiest place — including St. Paul and Miami — it could lengthen the wait times in others, such as Cleveland and Providence, where applicants typically wait less than six months, according to an analysis this year by Boundless Immigration, a company that guides immigration applicants.

Democrats ask federal watchdog to examine ‘unprecedented’ immigration backlog

The transfer of caseloads to more-distant field offices in some cases also means that some applicants will have to travel farther to appear for mandatory interviews. That change could disadvantage those without the time and money to make the trips.

USCIS said applicants’ travel time will be taken into account in determining the transfer of their cases to other offices.

President Trump has made immigration a central issue of his presidency, and he has pledged to crack down on illegal immigration by building barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border and by deporting those in the country illegally.

Trump and his advisers also have expressed their desire for plans to transform legal immigration by limiting the admittance of certain categories of people, including Muslims, Africans, the poor and the uneducated.

The Trump administration so far has failed to see any related legislation pass, but it has used an array of executive orders and internal policy memos during the past two years — circumventing Congress — to transform legal immigration processes.

Many of the policy changes have yielded new hurdles for those seeking to immigrate and have added to lengthening application processing times.

In late 2017, for example, USCIS began requiring in-person green card interviews for all employment-based applicants, and for the relatives of refugees and asylum seekers, both categories of people who were not previously required to appear for interviews.

USCIS attributes much of its backlog, which has grown by a million cases during Trump’s term, to a large number of applications. Agency officials say USCIS has expanded its staff and field offices, allowing it to process more applications last year than in any of the previous five years.

Critics argue that because USCIS operates primarily on the revenue of application fees, it should be able to keep pace with the demand. Doug Rand, co-founder and president of Boundless Immigration and a former Obama administration official, said the backlog will continue to grow: “They’re not on track to reduce any of that.”