USCIS Extend Work Permits for Tens of Thousands of Immigrants

Annie Erling Gofus - May 13 2022
Published in: Global Workforce
The new rule will allow most immigrants to continue working with expired or soon-to-expire work permits.

Under a new policy announced by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency in charge of legal immigration, immigrants with recently expired or soon-to-expire work permits will be able to continue working with their papers for up to a year and a half after they expire.

The delay was put in place as a Temporary Final Rule, and it follows the administration's effort to clear a backlog of roughly 1.5 million work-permit applications. The regulation was planned for months, with officials scouring the market for solutions to the problem of workforce shortages.

The policy aims to address the unprecedented backlog of work-permit applications at the country's legal immigration agency, leaving tens of thousands unable to work lawfully and exacerbating labor shortages.

Nearly 87,000 immigrants will benefit immediately from the new policy. Their work authorizations will be reinstated or set to renew in the next 30 days. Overall, the government predicts that as many as 420,000 new work permits will be kept from being revoked for the duration of the policy.

Millions of immigrants are eligible for work authorizations, including H-1B visa holders' spouses and applicants for green cards and asylum. Dreamers who are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and others are among those who qualify. Qualified immigrants work in a wide range of sectors, from technology to healthcare to trucking, and their absence has already affected employers trying to fill 11.5 million open jobs.

Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said employers would welcome the announcement. Baselice added that many businesses have let excellent personnel go as a result of these significant processing delays, exacerbating their employee shortages.

Immigrants who want to renew their work permits must file for that renewal six months before their documents expire. Typically, most work permits are valid for 180 days after their official expiration date, a safeguard the government included into the procedure years ago to ensure that a person's work authorization would never lapse, even if there were government delays.

However, as the backlog has expanded, the government has taken longer than planned to renew work permissions, leaving immigrants unemployed while they wait.

The extension represents an additional 360 days to the previous 180-day extension option that most, but not all, work permits grant. The grace period has been incorporated into the system for many years to accommodate for potential administrative delays and minimize the impact on employees' lives.

An exemption has been granted for eligible applicants to work on expired documents for up to 540 days, as opposed to 180 days. In other words, even those who have passed their 180-day limit still have another year of authorized work.

USCIS Director Ur Jaddou said the current 180-day window is clearly insufficient. “This temporary rule will provide those noncitizens otherwise eligible for the automatic extension an opportunity to maintain employment and provide critical support for their families while avoiding further disruption for U.S. employers,” she said in a news release.

Because they were never eligible for the 180-day extension on their expired work permits, DACA recipients and some H-1B spouse spouses will not be able to take advantage of the new rule. Asylum seekers, for example—who account for 65 percent of all pending extensions—will benefit.

There is no one cause for the unprecedented backup, though difficulties at the immigration department extend well beyond employment permits. The Biden administration has made progress in several areas at the agency that has generated the expanding backlog.

The government says it was shortchanged in the Trump years when the previous administration sought to reduce immigration to the United States and increase scrutiny of applicants. The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which coincided with a government shutdown, made things even worse.

The Trump administration depleted the agency's funds by accepting fewer visa applications and spending more money on security checks, which it considered a high priority. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the United States to temporarily shut its consulates and immigration offices throughout the world, resulting in a significant reduction in immigration applications

Because lawmakers and the Trump administration could not agree on terms of a $1.2 billion infusion, USCIS issued furlough notices to approximately 69% of its employees in August 2020 and suspended services. The USCIS is still significantly understaffed and underfunded compared to the start of the Trump administration. 

The policy will last for 18 months before reverting to the 180-day extension framework at the end of October 2023. According to the USCIS, the move will allow it time to implement several of the other modifications it has made to reduce delays, hire more employees, and enhance processing efficiency.