By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will extend expiring work permits for a year and a half for tens of thousands of immigrants due to lengthy backlogs to process renewals, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said on Tuesday.
The change, outlined in a temporary final rule set to take effect on Wednesday, will prevent up to around 260,000 immigrants from losing work authorization over an 18-month period and give USCIS time to clear the queue of applicants, the agency said.
Immigrants applying to renew work permits who normally qualify for an automatic 180-day extension will instead receive an automatic 540-day extension while their applications are pending, USCIS said.
USCIS, the agency charged with handling immigration paperwork, has struggled with steep backlogs in recent years, a problem exacerbated by budget shortfalls and slowdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
US employers have faced difficulties finding workers in recent months, as pandemic restrictions have been lifted across the country, making the work permits even more relevant.
The delays have created a “grave situation” for applicants who have lost their employment authorization while waiting for a renewal, USCIS said in the rule, which was posted online on Tuesday.
The work permit applications affected by the extension are largely made up of asylum seekers, certain immigrants seeking permanent residence and those trying to cancel a deportation order, the agency said.
Processing times for asylum applicants seeking to renew work permits rose to about 11 months in 2021, up from about seven months in 2017, the agency said.
Director Ur Jaddou said during a congressional hearing in April that the agency had 8.5 million pending immigration cases, a tally that includes people seeking green cards and citizenship.
More than half of those cases have taken longer than the agency’s normal processing times, she said.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Bill Berkrot)