U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has issued an alert on delays in processing receipt notices due to the surges in petition filings at lockbox facilities because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the agency’s “flexibility” in response.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many foreign nationals continue to be stuck and unable to leave the United States at the conclusion of their approved stays – either because of their home country travel restrictions, flight restrictions, or the rising COVID-19 cases abroad.  USCIS has suggested that those who unexpectedly have to remain in the United States beyond their authorized stay apply for an extension or change of status on a Form I-539 application. Individuals who timely file (prior to their expiration date) will not accrue unlawful presence. For many, just preparing a filing could be delayed because of lockdowns, illness, and other circumstances related to remote work. USCIS has excused delays that are due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the applicant’s control, including some caused by COVID-19. USCIS may use its discretion to excuse a delay on a case-by-case basis if the request is accompanied by credible evidence that the delay was beyond the applicant’s control and that it was commensurate with the circumstances.

Given the continuation of the pandemic and USCIS’ “flexibility,” it is not surprising that requests for extensions of stay have been soaring during the pandemic. In May 2020 alone, USCIS received 67,000 Form I-539 requests – four times the usual monthly average, with the B-2 Visitor category leading the way. There was a 500% increase in May 2020 compared to May 2019. May 2020 also saw a 100% increase in change of status requests from the previous year – from 4,000 to 8,000. Similarly, online filings increased as individuals struggled to avoid paper filings that would require services that might not be readily available – paper supplies, printing, and mailing.

In the meantime, the increase in filings may have exacerbated the “crisis level” delays and backlogs at USCIS. Between 2014 and 2019, overall case processing time rose by almost 100%. Currently, extension of stay and change of status requests can take from 4 months to 22 months to process. USCIS has been given the authority to institute premium processing for Form I-539 applications (as well as other petitions and applications), but that has yet to be implemented.

The way out of this situation, immigration advocacy groups have suggested, is more Congressional oversight and termination of new policies that are creating delays.

If you have any questions or need assistance regarding new rule changes or USCIS flexibility, please reach out to your Jackson Lewis attorney.