U.S. immigration officials in New York are streamlining the application process for hundreds of unaccompanied Central American minors who are still waiting for approval to stay in the country.
Now, kids applying for permanent residency in the state have to wait months for an interview at the local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Starting soon, many of them will be able to receive interview waivers, reducing the time they have to wait to be processed.
Officials at USCIS told a group of immigration lawyers about the new initiative at an event at New York Law School on Tuesday night. It's a response to a substantial backlog of immigration cases that are still taxing the system in New York, and years after thousands of kids from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras crossed the border on their own. There are currently about 1,000 unaccompanied minor cases pending across the state, most from Central America.
"Because we have this large backlog of cases, we're making efforts to triage them," said Kristian Parker, a section chief at the New York office.
Under the new initiative, most unaccompanied minors who have already been approved for a temporary status will be able to get an interview waiver for the final part of their application for a green card. They'll still need to submit all of their information. The office will still interview anyone with previous deportations or immigration violations, a criminal history, or other inconsistencies in their application.
They used to interview "pretty much everybody" applying to adjust their status and become a lawful permanent resident, Parker said.
"A lot of these cases are really young kids," Parker said. "We don't want to call folks in and have the trauma associated with coming into the big federal building if we don't have to."
Phyllis Coven, the New York State district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told me that the new initiative was about prioritizing interviews for cases that actually require them.
"We have the discretion to interview or not interview," she said. "We want to use our resources effectively."
She noted that it wasn't a guarantee that someone would not be interviewed.
Theo Liebmann, a Hofstra University law professor who studies immigrant children, told me that the new initiative would make the lives of minors applying easier.
"It’s a smart move that will help USCIS manage their caseload, and will ensure that children who meet the eligibility requirements are able to obtain legal status in a fair and efficient manner," Liebmann said in an email.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.