Cortez Masto, colleagues introduce bill to fix green card backlog

By: - March 9, 2022 5:33 am

During the Trump administration, immigrants who used noncash public benefits — like housing vouchers, food assistance, or Medicaid— could be deemed a public charge and denied residence or citizenship status. (Getty Images)

Millions of immigrants waiting for green cards could become U.S. permanent residents years faster if legislation to eliminate the backlog manages to become law.

Five Democratic senators, including Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, introduced legislation this week that, if enacted, would provide sweeping relief to immigrants caught in green card backlogs.

“Too many hardworking families are stuck in limbo waiting for their green cards, burdening our broken immigration system and hurting businesses that rely on these workers,” Cortez Masto said in a statement. “This bill provides much-needed relief to the many Nevada families and employees who are facing unending backlogs.

The proposed legislation, called the Resolving Extended Limbo for Immigrant Employees and Families (RELIEF) Act, aims to eliminate the family and employment green card backlog within five years in the order in which applications were filed.

According to one United States Citizenship and Immigration Services report, the agency claimed to have a family and employment green card backlog of 4.1 million cases as of November.

Immigration advocates say the number of immigrants trapped in the green card process is much higher. The State Department backlog report is limited and only includes immigrants being processed at consulates and embassies abroad and does not include the hundreds of thousands of immigrants already in the U.S. waiting to adjust to legal permanent residence from some other immigration status.

In Nevada, immigrants may find themselves waiting years to find out whether they are eligible for a status adjustment. 

Processing time for applications to register permanent residence or adjust status in Las Vegas takes between 13 to 24.5 months, according to a USCIS online processing times calculator. In the Reno office, that timeframe is between 10 to 14 months.

According to the latest data available from USCIS, more than 5,300 applications to register permanent residence or adjust status are pending in Nevada. 

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected the Department of State’s ability to process immigrant visa applications, only worsening the backlog.

Some progress has been made tackling the backlog within the U.S. after COVID-19 restrictions eased, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Over 177,000 noncitizens adjusted status from within the United States in the fourth quarter of 2021, a 69% increase from 2020, a sign of rebound after the reduction of in-person services provided at USCIS field offices.

Only 226,000 family green cards and about 140,000 employment green cards are available annually, under current law. A backlog further restricts the ability for U.S. citizens and green card holders to bring family members aboard to the U.S. through authorized immigration avenues.

President Joe Biden included provisions in his now defunct Build Back Better Act to address the backlog by recovering more than 400,000 family and employment-based green cards previously authorized by Congress that have gone unused since 1992.

This week’s bill introduced by Senate Democrats would attempt to update the green card system which hasn’t been changed in more than three decades and advance part of their immigration agenda where it faces a difficult pathway in a divided Senate.

“It looks like a very good proposal for significant, if not complete, reduction of the visa backlog,” said Rosa Molina, Immigration Services Director for PLAN in Northern Nevada. “I hope they have the backing of a large portion of their party.”

The bill would also make it easier for families to stay together by classifying spouses and children of any age or marital status as immediate relatives when sponsored by a legal permanent residence. Children are no longer eligible to be dependent on their parents’ visas when they turn 21. The bill would allow them to stay on their parents visas even if their green cards are processed after they age out. These changes would keep families together, said Molina.

“The visa backlog is a long-standing injustice that needs quick resolution,” Molina said.

The bill does not address those who are undocumented. Those who are undocumented will “need their own well-considered legislation that addresses specific” fixes to the immigration system, said Molina.

Along with Cortez Masto, the RELIEF Act is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), as well as Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mazie Hirono (D-HA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Alex Padilla (D-CA).

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies.