It depends on the type of application you filed and how long it has been pending for. Some applications have definite processing times. For example, an application for a work permit (or Employment Authorization Document) should generally take no longer than 90 days from the date of filing (8 C.F.R. § 247a.13(d)); by law, USCIS must adjudicate naturalization applications within 120 days from the date of the interview or risk getting sued by an applicant (8 U.S.C. § 1447(b); and some other applications have estimated average processing times that are posted to the public on USCIS’s website (http://1.usa.gov/1UVPl89).
Estimated processing times can give you a good idea of how long it should take for USCIS to render a decision on your application but sometimes, USCIS takes much longer than their estimated processing times. If this happens, there are three things you could do: (1) inquire about your application in person at a local USCIS office; (2) hire an attorney to do an inquiry with a an attorney liaison who may have some insight on what is happening to your application; and/or (3) sue USCIS on federal court to issue a decision on your case.
You can inquire about a pending application at your local USCIS office by making an INFOPASS appointment (http://1.usa.gov/23gZpcY). These are free but need to be made 2 weeks in advance and sometimes there are just not enough appointments available at a certain location. If you do have an appointment, you will get the chance to talk to a USCIS officer. The officer may be able to find out if someone has—or has not—looked at your application, if a decision has been made, if your file is at that specific USCIS office, etc. Although no attorney is needed to make or attend an INFOPASS appointment, it is important to be able to articulate to the officer what you think the problem is with your application and what result you want. An attorney will know exactly what to ask and can properly follow up on the status of your inquiry (yes, sometimes it takes more than one appointment to get USCIS to act on a case).
The other option is to hire an attorney to inquire about the status of a pending application with a liaison. Liaisons are people who work closely with the agency to resolve customer complaints (like applications that have been pending for too long). These liaisons are often able to bring some light on the reasons why an application may not have a decision yet.
Finally, when an application has been pending for longer than a year (in many cases, for several years), attorneys can generally file suit against USCIS in federal court so that a judge can order the agency to issue a decision on the application. This suit is called a Writ of Mandamus and could take a few months or be as quick as a month. Because this is a legal process done in federal court, it is a good idea to hire an attorney to do this—and it has to be someone who is licensed to practice law in the particular state where you want to file suit.
If you have an application that has been pending for a very long time with USCIS and the agency has not been able to help you, please contact an immigration attorney so he or she can evaluate what your next step should be.
Johanna Cochran, Associate Attorney