The family immigration process begins when a U.S. citizen or permanent resident “petitions” the government to sponsor a family member for a green card. This requires filing a special form (called an “I-130”) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In 2015 and 2016, it took USCIS about 6 months to complete this first step. So far this year, the average processing time has increased to over 10 months. During that time, the backlog has ballooned from some 775,000 to over 1.5 million pending cases — even though the volume of incoming cases has been more or less steady.
A similar pattern is evident in the next step for family-sponsored immigrants already living in the United States, which is to submit a formal application to “adjust status” from a temporary visa to a green card. This requires filing a different form (called an “I-485”) with USCIS, and here again the trends are troubling.
In 2015 and 2016, it took USCIS a bit over 6.5 months to complete this step. So far this year, the average processing time has increased to nearly 12 months. During that time, the backlog has shot up from some 194,000 to 372,000 pending cases — again, even though the volume of incoming cases has been more or less steady.
Another way to visualize this problem is to measure how efficiently USCIS deals with its backlogs. If USCIS processed every green card application it received in a given year, plus the applications that were pending from the previous year, that would yield a “backlog completion rate” of 100%.
In reality, USCIS achieved a backlog completion rate of 66% in 2014 for I-485s, dropping to 47% last year. The change is even more precipitous for I-130s, with a backlog completion rate of 80% in 2014 that dipped below 30% last year. In both cases, this slide began before the Trump administration, but the trend has accelerated and now USCIS isn’t even treading water. This does not bode well for future processing times.
Another troubling trend concerns how often a family-sponsored green card applicant is approved for permanent residency. While the denial rate for family sponsorship petitions (I-130) shows no clear trend over the past 6 years, the denial rate for actual green card applications (I-485) shows signs of a sharp uptick.
While 9% of family-sponsored green card applications were denied by USCIS in 2014, last year the denial rate was 13.2% — a nearly 50% jump resulting in some 14,000 extra denials per year.
It’s not all bad news — USCIS operates nearly 90 field offices across the country, and some of them have gotten faster at processing family-sponsored green card applications over the past year. (When USCIS requires an in-person interview, the applicant must travel to a particular USCIS field office based on their home ZIP code.) In cities like Jacksonville, FL and Albuquerque, NM, the local median processing time has dropped from 10.5 months to just 6 months since this time last year.
But such bright spots are in the minority. Because processing times vary so widely among USCIS field offices, family-sponsored green card applicants in some places face wait times more than three times longer than in other places, for no apparent reason.
The field office in New York City has the most discouraging numbers, compelling most green card applicants to wait 21 months, up to a near-maximum of 36 months.
Learn more in our 2019 family-based immigration report.