Alma Perez Pivaral knew the government had 90 days to renew her work permit. As the deadline came and went this past summer, she feared she might lose her west metro restaurant job.
Twin Cities immigrant advocates and attorneys say Pivaral's experience is becoming more common among applicants for the yearlong permits. They are a diverse group, from asylum seekers to spouses of green card applicants to international students to foreigners in the midst of often lengthy deportation proceedings.
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken recently questioned immigration officials about a growing drumbeat of complaints about the processing delays from both immigrants and the businesses that employ them. A Minneapolis nonprofit that serves asylum applicants joined a federal lawsuit over the waits.
"We were interested in trying to get the government to follow its own rules," said Michele McKenzie, deputy director of the Advocates for Human Rights. "We need to make sure our clients can eat and survive."
Meanwhile, some opponents of the Obama administration's immigration policy say too many work permits are being given out, with little mind to protecting American workers.
The government approved more than 2 million employment authorization document requests in the 2015 fiscal year, a 70 percent increase over the previous year. As of this summer, more than 554,000 work permit applications were pending.
Under the law, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has 30 days to handle first-time work permit applications from asylum seekers and 90 days for all other applications. The agency has faced perennial criticism about exceeding these limits.
But over the past year, says Michelle Rivero, this year's advocacy head for the local American Immigration Lawyers Association chapter, the delays have worsened markedly. Rivero says attorneys commonly see 90-day waits for asylum applicants and waits of 120 days or longer for others. Meanwhile, the government has largely stopped issuing interim work permits as required when it fails to meet its deadlines, advocates say.
"In my practice, I have never seen delays so lengthy," said Rivero, Pivaral's attorney.
In late 2014, Pivaral crossed the border with her daughter, now 12, amid a surge in families with children arriving from Central America. She told border authorities she was fleeing an abusive relationship in her native Guatemala and applied for asylum. The government granted asylum to Pivaral's daughter. Pivaral didn't qualify — she had been deported before — but she was allowed to stay and work, in a kind of immigration limbo.
Pivaral settled near relatives in the Twin Cities, got a work permit and started a job in the kitchen of a Minnetonka restaurant. But as the wait for a renewal permit approached 120 days, she worried she would lose the job on which she, her daughter and two other children in Guatemala rely. She also had to put off applying for a driver's license and continue to commute on public transit from Hopkins.
"It was very frustrating and stressful," she said.
The USCIS ombudsman's report to Congress this year highlighted the work permit delays — part of a broader trend of growing application backlogs and what the report called "perhaps the most important operational issue facing the agency today." According to a Society for Human Resource Management report, nearly a quarter of about 2 million work permits the agency issued in fiscal year 2015 missed the statutory deadlines.
Local lawyers have advised clients to apply for their work permit renewals earlier. But because the permits are valid from the date they are issued, applying too early can eat into the year of employment a previous permit has granted. The application fee alone costs $380.
Last year, Advocates for Human Rights, the largest provider of legal services to asylum seekers in Minnesota and the Dakotas, joined a federal lawsuit challenging the delays.
McKenzie says the waits can be tough on clients who — under a 1990s rule meant to discourage frivolous asylum applications — already must wait 150 days after seeking asylum to apply for a permit. Clients have lost jobs, gotten suspended from work and lost housing because of processing delays, she said.
Earlier in October, a federal judge dismissed the Advocates' case, but he allowed the lawsuit to proceed for 11 work permit applicants, none of them based in Minnesota.
The permit delays also came up at a recent meeting of administrators who serve international students on local campuses. These delays cut into the one to three years students get to work in the United States after graduation, said Aaron Colhapp, director of international student programs at Macalester College.
Franken's office recently has been fielding several requests per week for help with delayed work permits. Staff have also heard from small businesses and several large employers in the state.
"The employees and Minnesota businesses that are hurt are often the least able to afford it, so I'll keep pressing to end these delays," Franken said in a statement.
The government's plan
In a recent proposal to increase the work permit application fee to $420, USCIS said the elimination of a surcharge that used to cover some processing costs is partly to blame for the backlogs. It argued for bringing the surcharge back.
To Jessica Vaughan at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for reducing immigration, the issue is that the government hands out too many work permits.
She says the permits create a "huge parallel immigration system" that takes away opportunities from American workers and encourages illegal immigration. In data Vaughan obtained from USCIS, 2.2 million of 7.4 million new and renewal permits issued from 2009 to 2014 went to people who entered the country illegally or were denied asylum.
In recent years, the Obama administration has added new categories of people eligible for the permits: immigrants brought to the country as children and the spouses of employment-based green card applicants.
"This is an agency crushed by its own workload that's been so dramatically expanded by recent policies," Vaughan said.
In response to questions about processing delays, USCIS pointed to a page on its website that tracks processing times and says most work permit applications now take 90 days. Earlier in October, the agency announced that it will begin issuing two-year work permits to asylum seekers.
USCIS has also proposed getting rid of the deadlines to process work permits and the requirement to issue interim permits if it misses them. Under these proposals, some permits would be extended automatically for an interim period if the holders apply for renewal on time.
Meanwhile, Pivaral, the restaurant worker from Hopkins, received a notice her renewal application was approved 120 days after applying. She says she is relieved — and eager to get started applying for a driver's license.
Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781