Immigrant applicants are in limbo because their paperwork is stuck in a cave. No, really

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The Wall Street Journal reports that while Shawntel Went applied months before the Boston couple, she’s also been stuck in limbo because her paperwork is stuck in one of these caves, which are not actually operated by USCIS. Because the agency has been facing such a massive backlog, its contracted paperwork storage to the National Archives and Records Administration. 

“That agency is supposed to retrieve files containing applicants’ immigration histories,” the report said. “But because of the pandemic, it has closed its facilities to all but emergency cases—and the files needed to approve some people’s citizenship applications are out of reach.”

The report said the National Archives has over 350,000 pending requests (“though not all of those requests were for pending citizenship applications”), yet staffing levels at the federal records center under Kansas City is at just a quarter. Only in the past couple of weeks has the National Archives been working to let “a small number” of USCIS employees enter these caves (there are miles of them) to get documents. 

Cohen told the outlet that her clients’ predicament “has turned into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic immigration nightmare, and the applicants deserve better.”

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This isn’t the first time the pandemic has been a major factor in USCIS delays. In summer 2020, immigrants who had nearly completed the citizenship process but whose naturalization ceremonies were canceled due to the pandemic sued the agency, which was refusing to conduct virtual oaths (it’s also true that the previous administration gladly used the pandemic as an excuse to not carry out ceremonies). According to one estimate, as many as 125,000 immigrants who were on their way to citizenship were derailed from the process following the closure of USCIS offices due to the virus.

Thankfully, the immigrants who sued won“To be clear, the law is not as stringent as USCIS suggests and there is legal room for USCIS to make appropriate accommodations for remote oath ceremonies,” then- Department of Homeland Security Watch Director Ur Jaddou said at the time. But it takes will and interest to do so.”

Jaddou has since been appointed USCIS director by the Biden administration. In conducting virtual ceremonies over in-person oaths, it’s clear there are mechanisms for government agencies to do their work during this continued pandemic. But reading that people have been waiting over a year because paper documents are locked away underground is like something out of the distant past.  

“This is supposed to be one of the most advanced countries in the world … but the thing standing in my way is a locked door,” Went told The Wall Street Journal. Her son turned 18 during this ridiculous delay, meaning he’ll now have to do his own application process, meaning added time and fees.



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