Xiao Wang is CEO at Boundless, a technology startup that has helped thousands of immigrant families apply for marriage green cards and U.S. citizenship while providing affordable access to independent immigration attorneys.
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Immigration advocates are rightly fretting over the Trump administration’s new health insurance mandate and efforts to dismantle the asylum system. But away from the spotlight, another crisis is quietly brewing that could affect virtually every foreign-born STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) student and worker.
The problem lies in Employment Authorization Documents (EADs). These work permits, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), authorize international students and green card applicants to take jobs. Requests for EADs, known as I-765s, now account for more than a quarter of all forms USCIS receives. But technological hiccups, staffing shortages, and the pressures of conforming to new immigration policies mean the agency is taking longer and longer to process them. That’s leaving tens of thousands of students and skilled workers unable to work and hundreds of thousands of tech positions unfilled for months, or even years.
The EAD crisis has been simmering for years but reached a head in early 2017 when officials scrapped a rule requiring USCIS to process I-765s within 90 days. Along with an influx of new EAD requests from DACA and TPS recipients, that’s led to spiraling delays. In 2015, 23 percent of EAD applications took more than three months to process; by 2018, it had doubled to 46 percent. The average processing time today for non-DACA-related EADs is almost five months, with over a third of applications taking significantly longer — last year, over 118,000 applications took more than nine months to process.
That squares with what we’re seeing at Boundless: our internal data show that average EAD wait times have climbed above five months, with many customers waiting eight months or more for work permits. We’re also seeing an enormous disparity among processing facilities, with some USCIS service centers far more clogged than others. At the time of writing, if your I-765 is processed in Texas, for example, you could get your EAD within three weeks; if in Vermont, you could wait more than 17 months, depending on the immigration status you seek.
That adds up to an unpredictable, unfair, and deeply frustrating situation and one more obstacle for the skilled immigrants that President Donald Trump says he’s trying to attract to the United States. Whether you’re trying to make ends meet while waiting for your green card, seeking a summer job, or hoping to work after graduation, EAD delays can be excruciating — and unless your employer is willing to wait for you, the holdup could cost you your dream job.
So what could you do if you find yourself stuck in EAD limbo? Fortunately, you have options:
If you already have a visa, hold on to it
Many immigrants file EAD requests as part of their green card applications, even if they’re already authorized to work under visas such as an H-1B or L-1. That’s a smart move: If your current work visa expires, but you’ve been issued an EAD, you’ll be able to keep working until your green card arrives. Still, if your EAD gets delayed, you’ll be glad to know that as long as your original employment-based visa remains valid, you can keep working without a problem.
Bear in mind, though, that you won’t be able to renew your existing visa after filing a green card application. It’s worth applying for your green card as soon as you’re eligible to give you plenty of time before your existing work visa expires.
If you’re still waiting, tell USCIS
It’s not impossible for your EAD to slip through the cracks or be sent to the wrong address, so check with USCIS if things are taking too long. Start by checking the processing times for your service center. If you filed your I-765 before the “receipt date for a case inquiry” listed on the USCIS processing times tool, you can file an e-Request or call 1-800-375-5283 for an update.
In some cases, you can also ask USCIS to expedite your I-765. This is only available in certain circumstances, such as if delays are due to USCIS error or if you or your prospective employer would otherwise suffer major financial losses. Unfortunately, the possibility of losing or delaying acceptance of a job offer isn’t sufficient grounds for expediting an application.