Why Is My Immigration Case Taking So Long?

Unfortunately, long waits are a fact of life in the immigration world. But there might be steps you can take to cure problems that are holding up your application for a visa or green card.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you are waiting for U.S. government action on an immigration petition, visa, or other application, it is quite possible you have already experienced a longer wait than you would have expected—and are wondering why. Unfortunately, long waits are a fact of life in the immigration world, and only got worse after the start of the COVID pandemic.

If it's any comfort, the reason is probably nothing personal. Nor is it likely to be the fault of your lawyer, who has little more control over the actions of the immigration authorities than you do (although an experienced lawyer can help you track the status of your application and make inquiries).

Below we outline the most likely reasons that your case is taking a long time to resolve.

The Immigration Agency Handling Your Case Is Backed Up

U.S. immigration authorities always seem to have more applications coming their way than they can possibly handle in a reasonable time. It's the regular subject of news stories and congressional inquiries.

For the most part, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reviews applications on a first-come, first-served basis. (Everyone, however, must stand in line behind those employment-related petitioners that have paid extra for "premium processing.")

Also, in certain family visa cases, USCIS can take longer to make decisions on I-130 petitions where the beneficiaries' priority date will not be current for many years, such as in the case of the brother or sister of a U.S. citizen. This does not hurt the person's case, because their place in line for a visa has already been established by their "priority date," which is the date that USCIS first received the form I-130 petition.

To get a general idea of processing times at different USCIS Service Centers and offices, see the Check Processing Times page of the USCIS website. If you have already gotten a receipt number for your own petition or application, you can check its status on the USCIS website.

You Are on a Waiting List for a Visa or Green Card

If you are in a category of visa or green card applicant that does not allow unlimited numbers to be given out each year, a certain amount of waiting will be built into the process.

For example, if you are applying for a green card as the married child of a U.S. citizen, then you are in the third preference category of family-sponsored visas, and can expect to wait an average of at least ten years before your priority date is current and a visa number (and green card) is available to you.

There is nothing you can do about this except to keep on eye on your progress. Be sure to advise the National Visa Center (NVC) if your address changes, so that you won't miss any important notifications when it's time for your case to move forward.

Your File Has Gotten Lost in the Immigration System

It would not be paranoid of you to wonder whether your file has got lost somewhere in the recesses of a government building. This happens. It's the reason every applicant should make a complete copy of every page of their paperwork before sending it, and never send original documents if a copy will satisfy USCIS or the relevant government agency's needs.

The possibility of loss is part of why it's important to track your case through the immigration system, as described above. But what if your file got lost before even having a case number assigned to it, and so you never got a receipt notice even after many weeks or months? In such a case, it will be harder to track. Your best bet is to contact the office that should have your file, explain the situation, and if need be submit a copy of the application you sent. If that doesn't work, or you just can't wait any longer, definitely contact an immigration lawyer.

Your Immigration-Related Mail Got Sent to the Wrong Address

Have you moved since filing an application with USCIS? If so, you hopefully advised the relevant agency or office. For USCIS, you'd do this using Form AR-11 or its online Change of Address service. (Advising USCIS of any changes of address is legally required of all immigrants.)

But sending USCIS a general change of address doesn't always result in it advising the office that is actually handling your file. In many cases, people need to separately submit change of address notifications to every USCIS office that might be working on the case.

If you suspect that your new address might have caused confusion, contact that office now, and explain that you are awaiting word on a particular application. Here again, it would be a good idea to send in a copy of the application.

Your Security Check Is Taking a Long Time to Process

Any immigration application that required you to have fingerprints (or "biometrics") taken will involve those prints being sent to the FBI and other security agencies for a check of your criminal and immigration record. This can add weeks or months to the process, particularly if you have a common combination of first and last name or an extensive record.

You Haven't Responded Adequately to a Request for Evidence (RFE)

When USCIS cannot approve an application based on the materials sent in, it might send what's called a Request for Evidence, or RFE. Gathering the evidence requested (even if you think it irrelevant your case, which it often is) and returning it in a timely manner is crucial.

If USCIS has approved your initial petition and sent your case on to the National Visa Center (NVC), and you've uploaded your documents to the CEAC system, the NVC should email you any followup messages regarding needing more or better documents. But in case you missed the email, try logging in to your CEAC account. The message will also be found there. (You'll find helpful guidance in What Happens Between I-130 Approval and Consular Interview.)

If you ignored an RFE or similar request or sent your evidence in late, or you are not certain that the evidence you sent was sufficient, this is a likely cause of delay. See an attorney for help.

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