NEW YORK (PIX11) — Two years: That’s how long Samantha Roman had to wait until she saw an update on her citizenship process with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“It was a really hard and painful process. It is difficult not only financially but also emotionally because until your documents are issued, you can’t do anything,” Roman said. “For two years, I didn’t have any type of documentation, so I couldn’t even work.”
With most of her family living in her home country of Brazil, she lived through the pandemic without knowing when she would be able to see her loved ones.
“I was working on my Green Card application when COVID-19 happened while also making plans to go see my family. The timeline was also not helpful,” she said. “The immigration offices were all closed, so I could call, but I couldn’t get hold of what was happening with my process.”
And even after travel restrictions started to ease, Roman was still not able to fly because she didn’t have her travel documents.
Samantha is not alone. Hundreds of thousands of people with ongoing immigration processes are experiencing longer wait times and delays. Cesar Vargas, an immigration lawyer, knows all too well about the hurdles each non-citizen must go through to do simple things such as working or traveling to see family.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not ended, neither has its impact on both the immigration system and our country’s health. It impacted every sector of immigration, from people abroad to people within, people in detention, immigration courts, and of course for those seeking asylum,” said Vargas. “We are still seeing excessive delays, people’s applications inching towards some sort of resolution, and even the impact of President [Donald] Trump’s policies, including Title 42, which prevented asylum seekers from getting any type of protection due to the proclamation that the CDC issued to stop people from coming to the U.S. to avoid transmitting any disease.”
The immigration forecast is not very optimistic
On March 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, announced the end of Title 42. The agency cited that the termination also would allow the DHS time to implement appropriate COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including providing vaccines to migrants. The lifting of this restriction means that traditional immigration protocols can be resumed.
Meanwhile, another crisis could also push the USCIS backlog to the brink. According to the United Nations, the number of people who have fled Ukraine since Russian troops invaded the country has surpassed 4 million. During a visit to Brussels in late March, President Joe Biden committed to helping those escaping the war in East Europe.
“Many Ukrainian refugees will wish to stay in Europe, closer to their homes, but we’ll also welcome 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States with a focus on reuniting families,” Biden said.
The federal government has yet to provide details on how the country will roll out the resettlement of asylum-seekers from Ukraine or where they will go. But it is expected that the immigrants will head toward regions with larger Ukrainian communities, including New York City. Vargas warned this could end up increasing the number of cases the USCIS must review.
“Global politics always has an impact on our immigration system, and it’s also the reason why we have people from around the world coming to our borders looking for protection,” said Vargas. “We have millions of people still seeking refuge due to many factors. So we need a system in the U.S. to streamline the process so people can have their day in court and make their case for asylum and seek the protection that we, as a country, have the international responsibility to provide.”
At least for Samantha Roman, there is some good news. Back in January, she was finally able to become a United States citizen, and now she has her first trip planned for May.
“It is a feeling of accomplishment. I can travel, I can work, I can go see my family, and I have rights,” she said. “I want to hug my mother, hug my brother, say how much I love and miss them.”
How to make your immigration process easier
Immigration cases are increasing day by day, from asylum-seekers to people applying for Green Cards, work visas, and citizenship that were backlogged due to COVID-19. Vargas shared a few tips to help avoid headaches while working on paperwork with the USCIS:
1) Organize and know your story: Vargas suggested collecting all vital documents (e.g., birth/marriage certificates, school, or criminal records) and knowing your life’s timeline because immigration agencies require full disclosure of biographical information.
2) Do your own research: The official USCIS website is a great start and it’s full of easy-to-understand information on the criteria for different immigration benefits and processes.
3) Translate foreign documents: If you are migrating from a non-English speaking country, make sure to have official records translated and certified prior to starting your process.
4) Seek legal advice from an expert: Vargas said there are several local non-profit organizations in New York City and around the tri-state area that can provide pro-bono legal guidance; Action NYC is one of them.