This piece is published as part of our new Immigration Idea Incubator which features policy ideas our team has been thinking about in addition to our formal immigration strategy work. We welcome your thoughts and engagement!
The Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman operates independently within the Department of Homeland Security. It serves as a liaison between the public and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to resolve issues individuals and employers have with the U.S. immigration system. Each year, the Ombudsman publishes a report to Congress on the significant issues impacting the agency and provides policy recommendations to address these issues.
The 2023 report devoted an entire section to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. TPS provides temporary work authorization and protection against deportation for nationals of countries where returning safely isn’t possible given war, environmental disasters, or other “extraordinary and temporary conditions.” Sixteen countries currently have a TPS designation, totaling nearly 700,000 beneficiaries.
The unpredictable nature of evolving disasters and the staggering number of beneficiaries have ballooned wait times for processing applications, undermining the program’s intended benefits and stifling the agency’s ability to keep up with demand. The Ombudsman writes, “Processing work and travel authorization for these populations alone is a never-ending task for the agency.” To streamline the processing for TPS applicants and reduce the burden on the agency, the Ombudsman proposes eliminating the separate employment authorization application.
The agency explains, “The customary practice is to submit the Form I-821 and I-765 together to USCIS.” The first form is an application for TPS, and the second is for an employment authorization document, or EAD. The Ombudsman recommends eliminating that second filing and allowing applicants to indicate on Form I-821 that they would like an employment authorization document. TPS holders are eligible for work authorization, so the concurrent I-765 serves as little more than a formal request for the EAD card.
The Ombudsman finds the proposal is “operationally feasible” given a similar streamlining for parole and EAD for Afghan parolees that the Biden administration pursued recently.
According to the report, the costs of the backlogged and inefficient TPS adjudication system are clear, as hamstrung processing has led to current processing times of more than 14 months.
Fusing the TPS application and work authorization would benefit both petitioners and USCIS. Navigating the immigration process is challenging in and of itself, but for someone with turmoil in their country and who may not be a native English speaker, the system’s complexity understandably leads to stress and anxiety.
Moreover, delays in receiving work authorization further disadvantage vulnerable populations who need to support themselves (and potentially their families).
Reducing the number of forms through a streamlined process also benefits USCIS, as faster processing time will enable the agency to devote its precious resources to other forms and backlogs.
Finally, with low unemployment and millions of vacant jobs, current work authorization delays prevent legal immigrants from filling jobs and aiding the economy.
TPS is a critical program for vulnerable populations who can’t return home due to war and other disasters. But as the Ombudsman writes, USCIS “must be able to manage its current workload and be nimble enough to handle future TPS designations.” The current state of affairs at USCIS undermines the program due to exceedingly long backlogs.
Folding work authorization into the TPS application is one small but potentially impactful step toward making the program more efficient, to the benefit of the agency and future applicants.