Green Card Applicants Angered by Backlog
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Tens of thousands of foreign workers were elated last month when the State Department said they could apply for the final stage in getting a coveted green card. That's a permanent visa. It allows people to eventually seek citizenship. But on the day those applications could be filed, the Immigration Agency refused to accept them. Now both agencies face lawsuits and questions about what went wrong.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Waiting to apply for a green card is an agonizing state of limbo. When a monthly government bulletin suddenly showed the window was open for many who had been waiting years it set off a frenzy.
Maryland biotech researcher Shutri Mukond(ph) and her husband rushed together photos, documents and medical exams.
Ms. SHUTRI MUKOND: All of the doctor's offices were full because everybody was trying to get this done in two weeks.
LUDDEN: Their parents back in India scrambled to get notarized birth certificates and express-delivered them to the U.S.
Ms. MUKOND: Friends of ours had actually - they were in India, and when they heard this bulletin, they cut short their trip and they came back because you have to be personally here to apply.
LUDDEN: After investing all that time and money, Mukond, her husband and tens of thousands of others were then told on July 2nd never mind, those green card slots were not available after all. So how could that happen? Well, it is hard to keep a running tab on the annual quota of 140,000 work-based visas.
Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute says while the immigration agency issues visas, the State Department tracks when slots come open.
Mr. MUZAFFAR CHISHTI (Director, Migration Policy Institute, New York University School of Law): They are determined by a complex calculation of demands from all over the world, by the number of applications being submitted for adjustment, and by the rate of historical rate or demands of all these numbers.
LUDDEN: As if that weren't tricky enough, Citizenship and Immigration Services, known as USCIS, is severely backlogged and inefficient. It's own ombudsman has found that in recent years more than 180,000 work-based visas were not given out, simply wasted because of slow processing even though demands for these visas far outstrips the quota.
Now, both agencies involved here declined official comment because of litigation. But a State Department spokesman did explain that officials there were trying to make sure all the work-based green cards in this year's quota were actually used. So in mid-June they put out a call for a flood of new applicants.
Before those could arrive, Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association says something really strange happened at the Immigration Agency.
Ms. CRYSTAL WILLIAMS (Deputy Director, American Immigration Lawyers Association): Somehow, in the course of those two or three weeks, the USCIS managed to somehow mysteriously adjudicate 60,000 applications. I have never seen that agency adjudicate 60,000 anything in the course of a few weeks.
LUDDEN: In an unusual move, employees were even called in to work weekends. And then, of course, the agency said its quota was reached. But now, adding to the confusion and anger, Williams says it appears the agency took shortcuts with those 60,000 applications just to reserve all the slots.
Ms. WILLIAMS: People who work for this agency are telling us I haven't adjudicated all these applications. I'm still waiting for a security clearance.
LUDDEN: The chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration says she'll hold a hearing on the issue. The Immigration Lawyers Association plans a class-action lawsuit.
Chicago lawyer Ira Azulay has already filed one. He says this mix-up is ironic coming on the heels of a national debate over illegal immigration.
Mr. IRA AZULAY (Attorney, Chicago): The sad message of a system like this is that you're not in a better position if you follow the rules. And here you've got tons of people doing it the right way and this is what we give them. Frankly, it's embarrassing.
LUDDEN: Disappointed green card applicants are being told to try again in October. But many say they don't believe there will be slots available then either, leaving them in limbo.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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