How Worried Should You Be If Your Immigration Case Is Seriously Delayed?

Learn how to monitor your immigration or citizenship case to figure out whether the absurdly long wait you're facing is even longer than that of others, and what to do about it.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

For as long as I've been writing about applying for U.S. immigration benefits (decades, in other words), I've been using phrases like, "delays are inevitable" and "this could take months or years." It's been true all along. But now it's become absolutely surreal how long the average applicant for any sort of U.S. visa or green card typically will wait. And the situation is not likely to get better anytime soon.

Below, let's look at what that literally means for your immigration case, including:

  • the extent of the problem with immigration processing delays
  • the cause of these delays, and
  • what to do if your immigration case is abnormally delayed.

The figures quoted refer to early 2024.

How Bad Are USCIS Delays, in Terms of Actual Immigration Application Processing Times?

It's bad. How long you'll wait for a decision on a visa or green card application depends in part on what you're seeking and where you live, as shown in these examples:

  • U.S. citizens applying for green cards for spouses as well as parents and young children face waits of approximately 14 months for government approval of the I-130 petition that starts off the immigration process. But further steps are ahead. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS's) I-130 approval is only a green light, giving the immigrant the go-ahead to proceed with their green card application. That means—you guessed it—more waiting ahead. And in cases where the foreign spouse lives overseas, they will have a tough time getting so much as a tourist visa (B-2) to visit the United States during this long wait. After all, U.S. immigration authorities will suspect them of having the nefarious secret wish to stay in the U.S. permanently, based on on their pending I-130 or green card application; which thus disqualifies them from receiving a tourist visa or some other nonimmigrant (temporary) visas.
  • Green card holders wanting to take the next step and apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship face waits of anywhere from 6 to 13 months after submitting their N-400 before they're so much as interviewed by USCIS. And then they might wait months longer for a decision (if questions came up at the interview or USCIS requested more documents) or swearing-in ceremony.
  • Asylum-seekers who apply on their own (affirmatively) are will be waiting along with over 500,000 others. Although recent applications are currently being put first in line, it's easy for cases to get delayed and bogged down. Applicants who are in immigration court proceedings wait years for a decision. The backlog of cases (asylum and others) is at record levels; over 3 million people are still awaiting a judge's hearing or decision. The toll on applicants who've fled to the U.S. for their lives is huge. They face separation from family, difficult financial circumstances (many are not eligible for a work permit), and the ongoing stress of wondering whether they will one day be deported to the country that persecuted them.

This list of examples could go on. Suffice it to say, there's almost no corner of the immigration law world where processing is going quickly or smoothly.

What Is Causing These Long Delays in Immigration Processing?

The immigration bureaucracy is huge, underfunded (or says it is), spread around the world, and responsible for serving millions of people each year. Some delays are inevitable.

During the Trump years, hostility toward all immigrants brought added requirements (such as USCIS interviews in employment-based green card cases, which had not been mandated before). Then came a pandemic that caused office closures and slowdowns in all in-person interactions, and the crippling effects of trying to dig out from under the backlog with often outdated technology. What's more, pressure at the Southern U.S. border has resulted in resources being diverted there, particularly when it comes to asylum officers and judges.

And let's not forget the immigration-file cave! A 2022 report revealed that thousands of paper-based immigration records (so-called "A-Files") had been stored in manmade caves in Missouri, but could not be accessed due to COVID restrictions. Although the files weren't under active review, there are circumstances, most notably when a lawful permanent resident applies for U.S. citizenship, in which USCIS must pull up and review the A-file. It's their window into the person's immigration history, helping USCIS to double check that, for example, the applicant didn't use fraud in obtaining the green card. No A-file, no citizenship decision. Presumably the cave is once again accessible, but such issues certainly don't help the government catch up.

What Can I Do If My Immigration Case Is Delayed?

If you've been waiting months or years for an immigration decision, don't panic. It's not likely that you're being singled out for worse treatment than others, nor that your case has been lost in a USCIS cave or other storage facility (though not impossible). Nevertheless, you'll want to monitor your case and make sure the delay you're facing is a "normal" one, then follow up if it's not.

For many types of applications, the U.S. government posts average processing times, or lets you track your application through the system by its case number. If you're still being told that your case is pending when the normal processing time averages less than you've already waited, you can submit an individual inquiry. See, for example, the USCIS processing times page as well as How to Ask About Delays in Your Green Card Application Process or When You'll Get the Immigration Court Judge's Decision. Inquiries to USCIS or the immigration court system are unlikely to produce immediate results, but they'll get the ball rolling.

You can also contact USCIS by phone at its Contact Center, but you'll need to navigate an automated system and convince it to schedule you for a call-back. It's best to start the process early in the morning, on a day when you're reasonably reachable.

When Is It Time to Hire an Immigration Attorney?

Attorneys cannot perform magic and make the immigration bureaucracy move faster, but they can at least handle the tedium of making inquiries, and sometimes have access to officials that the average person doesn't. Also, they have the experience to figure out whether something has gone truly wrong in a particular case. And if documents or convincing legal arguments were missing in your case, they might still be able to supply those.

What attorneys definitely can't do, however, is march into a locked cave and retrieve your A-file. In the bigger picture, problems like these can be worth contacting your members of Congress over. (Also see When Do You Need an Immigration Lawyer?.)