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

If you've waited weeks, months, or years for a decision on your application for a U.S. green card or visa, you're not alone. Learn how to monitor your 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.

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.

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 and young children face waits of up to 14 months for government approval of the I-130 petition that starts off the process. Such long waits are particularly common if you live in Texas or areas served by the the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) Texas or Potomac Service Center. Here's the worst part: 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. No actually, here's the worst part: 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 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.
  • Green card holders wanting to take the next step and apply for U.S. citizenship face waits of up to two years 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 in immigration court proceedings wait an average of four and a half years for a decision. The backlog of applicants is huge; over 660,00 are still waiting to go before a judge for a hearing. The toll on applicants who've fled to the U.S. for their lives is huge. They face separation from family, difficult financial circumstances (few are 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.

But when you also factor in the Trump years, during which hostility toward all immigrants brought newly added requirements (such as USCIS interviews in employment-based green card cases, which had not been mandated before), 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, it becomes a toxic stew.

And then there's the problem of the immigration-file cave! A recent report revealed that thousands of paper-based immigration records (so-called "A-Files") are stored in manmade caves in Missouri. Because of COVID restrictions, USCIS says it cannot access them. That might not ordinarily be a big problem, since such files aren't under active review. But here's the issue: Under some circumstances, most notably when a lawful permanent resident applies for U.S. citizenship, 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.

What Can I Do If My 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 some do get lost). 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 When Should You Start Asking About Delays in Getting Your Green Card Approval? 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.

Or, you can hire an attorney to handle these tasks, if you haven't already got one. (See When Do You Need an Immigration Lawyer?.) Attorneys can't perform magic and make the bureaucracy move faster, but they can at least handle the tedium of making inquiries, and have the context to understand whether something has gone truly wrong in a particular case.

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 might be worth contacting your members of Congress over.