The Biden administration announced Monday that it will speed the process of issuing temporary work permits to some undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime in the United States and who agree to cooperate with law enforcement, giving thousands of people faster access to temporary protections while they wait for a final visa determination.
The change will benefit immigrants who have applied for the U visa, a program that currently has a backlog of 270,000 applications, a number that grew significantly during the Trump administration. The average wait just to get placed on an official waiting list for temporary work authorization is now at least five years, up from about 11 months during the 2015 spending year.
The U visa provides a path to citizenship for victims of certain crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Congress only allows the government to issue 10,000 such visas a year, leaving many other applicants on a waiting list for future years and vulnerable to deportation.
Under the new policy, the government will make faster decisions about whether to grant four-year work permits to immigrants waiting for U visa determinations. This will give applicants the ability to “work and remain safely in the United States while they provide valuable support to law enforcement to detect, investigate or prosecute the serious crimes they have survived or witnessed,” the acting director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Tracy Renaud, said in a statement on Monday.
The work permits will not be granted to everyone who applies, and will require registering fingerprints and other biometrics with the government. It was not immediately clear how quickly applicants would receive temporary permission to work once the government believes they are applying in good faith.
The change is part of President Biden’s efforts to roll back the restrictive measures of the last administration and make it easier to immigrate to the United States, with shorter and simpler forms.
State and local law enforcement officials have cheered the U visa program, which started in 2000, but have raised concerns in recent years about the delay in granting protections to undocumented immigrants whom they rely on for help in investigations.
The Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes limits on immigration, has said the U visa program is already vulnerable to fraud and abuse, and fast-tracking work permits will only make that worse.
“That’s going to be a huge incentive for people to apply, knowing that they’re only getting a cursory review and a four-year work permit,” Jessica M. Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the center, said.