Trump Administration to Close All International Immigration Field Offices (USCIS)

The director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), L. Francis Cissna has reportedly announced the end to the International Division of USCIS. This change would bring about the end of two dozen international branches of USCIS. The end of the USCIS international field office program would occur by the end of 2019, ending 24 programs in 21 countries. The decision to close USCIS international offices around the world comes as an effort to save millions of dollars per year.

Initial Reports

Several reports indicate that USCIS is in the “preliminary” stages of disseminating all USCIS field office responsibility to officials in the US State Department. Therefore, the personnel of the State Department would be responsible for immigration matters previously held by the international USCIS field offices. However, some US embassies and consulates abroad could now hold USCIS type responsibilities. These responsibilities include refugee applications, family reunification visas, foreign adoptions, parole requests, and naturalization documents for military members with foreign national spouses.

A representative for USCIS, Jessica Collins, told NPR that “The goal of any such shift would be to maximize USCIS resources that could then be reallocated, in part, to backlog reduction.” Collins further commented in response to concerns about the sudden closers, stating that the Department of Homeland Security and the US State Department would “ensure no interruption in the provision of immigration services to affected applicants and petitioners.” While the reallocation of resources spent on operations abroad could have a small impact on the backlog domestically, the move likely comes as President Trump works towards slashing government spending to pay for other administrative priorities. These changes will cause longer wait times for those who seek US visa privileges from abroad, and the closures will be especially harmful for refugees.

Refugees

Along with retransferring basic USCIS responsibilities to already over-worked State Department and embassy staff, the new changes could spell greater delays for refugees seeking residence in the United States. Many are concerned that the added workload will exacerbate an already slow refugee process, in a time when there is the largest refugee population in recorded history.

Evidence of “Good Faith” Marriage: Checklist of Required Documents for Form I-751

A U.S. conditional resident filing for the Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence, Form I-751, must provide information of a “good faith” marriage. The Form I-751 petition, made available to those conditional permanent residents who obtained status through marriage, requires evidence that the marriage was legitimate, and not a means to subvert immigration laws.

Types of Evidence

The documentary evidence portion of the Form I-751 may include several different categories of proof of a legitimate marriage. These include:

  • Residential Evidence:Documentary evidence of a shared home or residence can be helpful in establishing a bona fide marriage. Copies of official deed, lease, or mortgage with both of the spouse’s names can be used as evidence of a financial connection between the married couple. Copies of utility bills showing the same address, property insurance documents with the same address, and driver’s licenses listing the same address are all good examples of a residential connection between the spouses. If the couple does not live together, the petitioners should be prepared to explain the separate residencies.
  • Financial Evidence:Information proving shared monetary resources between spouses may be submitted to prove a marriage is legitimate. In particular, petitioners may file recent jointly filed tax returns, joint checking and savings account statements, and any loan and credit card statements that contain both petitioner’s names. Additionally, proof of a financial relationship may be established by documentation noting large purchases (e.g. houses, cars, etc.). Official legal estate documents, such as a will, can be submitted to provide evidence of path of inheritance for either spouse.
  • Evidence of Relationship: There are many ways that a couple can present evidence of a bona fide marriage. One such way is to provide documents and photographs overviewing the entire relationship. Photographs from the couple’s engagement, wedding, honeymoon, and holidays may be submitted. For photographs, it is important to include an approximate date for each photograph. Additionally, petitioners can include receipts from joint vacations or hotel bookings.
  • Family Evidence: Petitioners may submit any evidence proving shared children. Petitioners can also submit affidavits of family affirming their knowledge of the couple’s relationship. When submitting evidence of children, petitioners should provide copies of original birth certificates displaying both of the parent’s names. Adoption papers should list joint custody of the petitioning parents. Family members, like parents and siblings, may submit official statements, or affidavits of support, for the couple and their relationship.

The documentary evidence above is not an exhaustive list of documents accepted. Consider a variety of evidence of clear evidence when trying to establish a bona fide marriage. 

USCIS Increases Scrutiny for Family Based Applications

In the past few months, the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) has launched new initiatives to promote greater scrutiny towards several types of immigration applications. Under these new guidelines, Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) and U.S. Citizens have received an alarming amount of RFEs, or request for evidence, for family-based applications.

Petition for Alien Relative

Once an individual is a LPR or citizen of the United States they may submit a petition for an alien relative to immigrate to the United States, or form I-130. Priority is given to immediate relatives (i.e. spouse, unmarried children, parent). Most frequently, LPRs and U.S. citizens file petitions for their spouse and children. To complete the form I-130, petitioners must establish a bona fide relationship with the relative that they wish to help immigrate to the United States. For years, the documents required to establish a bona fide relationship between spouses has been extensive, yet reasonable. Thus, to file a petition for an alien spouse, petitioners would present a marriage certificate and a few pictures documenting the relationship between the alien spouse and the citizen/LPR spouse. This application would be submitted and processed through a USCIS Lockbox and then referred to a local USCIS office. Later, during the interview process, spouses would be required to provide further evidence of a bona fide relationship (e.g. additional pictures, utility bills, credit card statements, etc.). However, it appears that USCIS now expects more evidence for initial filings than has been typical.

More Evidence, More Roadblocks

In the last several months, applications have been halted at the beginning stages. Several petitioners have received RFEs stating insufficient evidence based on documentation that has, in the past, been sufficient for the initial I-130 filing. These RFEs outline a new extensive list of documents necessary to establish a bona fide relationship including:

  • Courtship correspondence (i.e. texts, email, etc.);
  • Travel Records;
  • Photos;
  • Wedding Announcements;
  • Bank Statements.

In some instances, USCIS has required petitioners to submit notarized statements from members of the beneficiary’s family stating why they were not present at the wedding ceremony.

The volume of RFEs has significantly slowed the immigration benefit process. For family-based petitions, the level of documentation necessary for the first stage of the filing process is atypical and a nuisance for families attempting to reunite in the U.S.

USCIS Introduces Online Fee Calculator

Regardless of the visa application, calculating total fees for filings can be a hassle. But what many don’t realize is that an improperly calculated fee payment would result in rejection of the complete application thereby leading to a longer application process. This tedious process has left many with rejected applications due to citing and submitting the incorrect or incomplete total filing fee. To amend this, USCIS now offers a free Online Fee Calculator to assist those filing their forms through a USCIS agency lockbox facility.

Calculating Fees

From the Immigrant Petition for Aliens Worker (Form I-140) to Applications for Naturalization (Form N-400), applications and petitions for citizenship and immigration benefits require payments to fund processing costs. While a significant sum, these fees enable USCIS to operate as the service almost entirely relies on application and petition fees. Often these fees change to adjust to changing processing costs and inflation. Through the new online calculator, applicants and petitioners can find out the exact filing and biometric fees required for their particular application. The Online Fee Calculator is up to date, and reflects any recent adjustments to fees. The online calculator matches up-to-date filing fees with the forms selected by the drop down menu found on the website. By selecting your form, the fee calculator will either present you with a flat fee rate, or if you filing fee varies, prompt additional information to determine your category or age group. Those who wish to file concurrent forms can multiple form calculations to receive a total filing amount. However, the tool does not currently offer a feature to calculate fees for multiple individuals. Once users have responded to the questionnaire, the Online Fee Calculator will include biometric fees, if necessary, as well as the total fee amount. This total represents the amount that should be filed with applications and petitions submitted to USCIS.

Improper Fees

Each year, USCIS processes millions of applications and petitions. Those which require fees are sometimes submitted with out-of-date and incorrect payments. Those applications are automatically rejected. For those filing at Lockbox facilities, checks, money orders, and credit card payments for applications may include the incorrect fee total. With the new Online Fee Calculator, applicants can rest assured that their fee payment is up-to-date to avoid rejections.

Government Shutdown: EB-5 Program & Immigration Agencies

In the absence of congressional authorization, the EB-5 foreign investors visa program was set to end on December 21st of 2018. However, following the government shutdown that began on December 20th of 2018 and continues into the 2019, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) announced that the future of the EB-5 program will remain pending until funding legislation passes in Congress. However, the shutdown will not drastically impact other application processes for visa benefits.

Impact on EB-5 Applications Prior to December 21st

USCIS notes that any Form I-924, Application for Regional Center Designation Under the Immigrant Investor Program, will not be accepted as of December 21st. Those Form I-924 applications still pending will remain on hold until funding is either allocated or denied to the EB-5 program. USCIS notes that it will continue to accept regional center-affiliated Form I-526s,  Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur, and Forms I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status submitted before close of business on December 22nd. However, the aforementioned applications will remain on hold until the end of the government shutdown.

Additional Visas Impacted

As reported during the last government shutdown, most vital functions of the United States government will continue while the government is shutdown. In particular, the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) will continue to function at ports of entry. Therefore, foreign nationals need not cancel travel plans abroad during the shutdown. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will additionally remain open during the shutdown. Thus, any applications or petitions that include fee processing, will continue to be processed through the shutdown (e.g. adjustment of status, etc.). Visa processing services provided by US consulates, and managed by the Department of State, will also continue while the government is shutdown. The Department of Labor, which received funding in September of 2018, will continue Labor Condition Application processing. Although these essential government agencies will remain open during the shutdown, it is unclear when the shutdown will end, and whether programs like the EB-5 visa program, will continue into 2019.

DHS Proposed Rule: New Changes to Public Charge Inadmissibility

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released a new proposed rule which would outline the ways in which the agency determines a foreign national is inadmissible due to risk of becoming a public charge. Foreign nationals who wish to enter the U.S. or adjust their immigration status must provide evidence of financial stability, and establish that they will not become a ‘public charge,’ or dependent on government assistance, during their stay. Public charge inadmissibility does not, however, currently apply to naturalization proceedings or other protected classes of nonimmigrants. The new proposal seeks to require foreign nationals seeking extensions of status or adjustment of status “to demonstrate that they have not received, are not currently receiving, nor are likely to receive, public benefits.” The new proposal seeks to more clearly define the term ‘public charge’ for the purpose of determining admissibility.

Major Changes

The proposed rule would change current standards for determining admissibility due to the risk of becoming a future public charge. Additionally, DHS would define the types of public benefits that make a foreign national subject to public charge inadmissibility while including a designated threshold of benefits allowed for all nonimmigrants receiving such benefits. DHS also seeks to make it more difficult for current foreign national public charges to gain approval for a change of status or extension of stay application. The rule would apply to all individuals seeking to adjust their status to that of a lawful permanent resident. However, USCIS notes that “lawful permanent residents who subsequently apply for naturalization would not be subject to inadmissibility determinations, including a public charge inadmissibility determination.”  

Those seeking entrance as refugees, asylees, Afghans and Iraqis with special immigrant visas, nonimmigrant trafficking and crime victims, individuals applying under the Violence Against Women Act, and special immigrant juveniles would be excluded from inadmissibility based on likelihood of public charge. Those applicants with “financial assets, resources, and support of at least 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines” or those applicants with an income larger than 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, are more likely to be excluded from inadmissibility on the ground of public charge status.

Digital Border Search Under Federal Scrutiny: CBP

Last month, a federal suit brought forth new questions surrounding individual property rights at the U.S. border. Two months ago, an American woman filed a federal suit against the Department of Homeland Security after Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents seized her smartphone upon return to the United States and made copies of the data found on the device. Rejhane Lazoja, a Muslim-American woman, asked a federal judge to compel border officials to erase all data copied from her iPhone following the February seizure. On October 30th, Lazoja was granted her request when DHS settled the case by deleting all of Lazoja’s data collected by CBP. However, the lawsuit sheds new light on the continued uncertainty surrounding digital property rights at the border.

Border Doctrine

Unlike inside the U.S., CBP officers may search and seize property from individuals entering the country without a warrant. This “border doctrine” allows CBP officers to take property, including cellular devices, without approval from a judge. At the border, CBP agents may seize cellphones for an extended period of time, during which data is collected from the electronic device. In the case of Lazoja v. Nielson, the plaintiffs stated that the “seizure, retention, and any sharing of [Rejhane Lazoja’s] property without reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a warrant have violated Ms. Lazoja’s rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Although Lazoja received her cellphone 130 days after re-entering the U.S., DHS retained data collected from her device, including confidential correspondence with Lazoja’s attorneys. By retaining the American woman’s property for a period longer than 120 days, without a warrant or reasonable suspicion, the representatives for Ms. Lazoja argued that her Constitutional rights had been violated. Although the case was settled before adjudication, the problem surrounding data seizure, and retention, at the border remains. CBP maintains full discretion to seize and copy data from electronic devices belonging to individuals crossing the border, regardless of their citizenship status. As CBP agents become more strict under the direction of President Trump, there may be a rise in property and data seizures in the coming months.

USCIS Policy Changes: Medical Examination Record Validity

USCIS has announced new changes for the validity period for the Form I-693, Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record. The new regulation will require applicants to present a Form I-693 that was signed by an approved civil surgeon no more than 60 days before the submission of their immigration benefits application. According to USCIS, the change in the validity period for Form I-693 will help to reduce delays caused by requests for updated medical examinations.

Form I-693

The Form I-693, Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination determines admissibility of an individual based public health related grounds for inadmissibility. Specifically, section 212(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act lists specific health related issues that make applicants inadmissible (e.g. threatening mental disorder, communicable diseases). In addition, the Form I-693 ensures that individuals seeking immigration benefits have necessary vaccinations (e.g. mumps, measles, rubella, polio, tetanus and diphtheria toxoids, pertussis, influenza type B and hepatitis B). If a civil surgeon finds that the applicant meets all health requirements, he or she will complete sections of the Form I-693 and issue their signed approval. From the date of signature, the form is valid for up to two years.

Policy Change

Although the Form I-693 will remain valid for a period of two years, applicants must now submit their immigration benefit application with a signed medical examination form no later than 60 days from the date of the civil surgeon’s signature. The narrowed period of submission will increase “operational efficiencies” in USCIS while reducing the volume of requests for updated Form I-693s. As processing times for certain immigration benefits continue to extend into periods greater than a year, requiring a newer examination record will reduce the likelihood of the medical examination form expiring during processing. However, the new change will put a greater burden on applicants to schedule medical examinations within a two-month window of the application filing date. Additionally, USCIS will maintain the discretion to request a new Form I-693 if there is suspicion that the applicant is inadmissible based on public health risk.

Major USCIS Changes: Update on RFE & NOID

On September 11, 2018, the United States Customs and Immigration Service will adopt new guidelines for the issuance of Request for Evidence (RFE) and Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID). Through no change to the laws of legal immigration, these new guidelines present one of the greatest threats to legal immigration in recent history.

Overview of Changes

In a series of policy memorandums, USCIS gave notice of new guidance for adjudicating officers. This guidance allows adjudicators to deny a request for immigration benefits without issuing an RFE or NOID. Previously, USCIS required adjudicators to send notice to applicants who provided insufficient evidence for an application or petition (RFE & NOID). Without a barrier to outright denial, those applying for immigration benefits can now receive denials if adjudicators determine that there is insufficient evidence.

Who is at Risk?

All applicants, from applications for naturalization to applications filed under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), are at risk under these new guidelines. After September 11th, applicants will be at risk of outright denial of their application or petition. With full discretionary power, USCIS adjudicators will be unforgiving of even small errors in applications. Therefore, if a naturalization application is missing a single document of evidence, a USCIS adjudicator can now deny the application without sending a notice for additional information or allowing the applicant to provide an explanation for the missing evidence.

Impact of Denial

If an applicant is denied benefits, then the petitioner or applicant will have to resubmit their application. Meaning, each applicant must repay all immigration fees regardless if their current employment visa was compromised by the denial. However, this is the best case scenario considering further USCIS changes regarding Notices to Appear (NTA). Under this regulation, some applicants who receive outward denials will be required to appear before immigration court to face removal proceedings. The devastating impact of these policies will impact families and highly skilled professionals alike. As September 11thapproaches, all applicants for immigration benefits must be extremely thorough in their applications. If you require assistance with any of your applications, please feel free to schedule a consultation.

Change of Address: Non-Citizens & Citizens

In most cases, the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) requires only non-U.S. citizens to report a change of address. However, if you are a U.S. citizen serving as a sponsor for a non-U.S. citizen, you may have to submit a Form I-865 to update your most recent address.

Non-U.S. Citizens

If you are a foreign national who is in the United states for a period of more than 30 days, or who is not an official government representative or diplomat for your country, you must report any change to your address within 10 days. Non-U.S. citizens can change their address online through an electronic Form AR-11. There, individuals with open or recently approved applications and petitions can amend their applications at the same time with the online change of address system. Although all non-U.S. citizens may file their Form AR-11 through the mail, the following must submit address changes through mail, not through the online portal nor through phone: Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant filed as VAWA self-petitioner; Form I-914, Application for T Nonimmigrant Status (“T visa”); Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status (“U visa”); Form I-765V, Application for Employment Authorization for Abused Nonimmigrant Spouse; and Form I-485, Application to Adjust status as an abused spouse under the Cuban Adjustment Act. Willful failure to notify USCIS of a change of address will result in a misdemeanor charge and could result in deportation proceedings. U.S. citizens, however, must file a separate notice of address change if they are a sponsor for a non-U.S. citizen.

U.S. Citizens

If you are a sponsor for a non-citizen i.e. if any time in the past you have completed Form I-864, you will need to complete a Form I-865, Sponsor’s Notice of Change of Address, if your address changes while the sponsorship agreement is still in place. Sponsors, who are citizens of the United States, have up to 30 days to submit a signed Form I-865 to USCIS following the change in permanent address. Each sponsor must submit a separate Form I-865, regardless if they share the same address. In many cases, sponsors must submit multiple notices for each relocation while the sponsorship agreement remains in force, which can span several years. The sponsor will maintain an obligation to report a change of address until the sponsorship agreement is no longer in place (e.g. the sponsored immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen or the application is abandoned or void). Failure to report an address change may result in fines ranging from $250 to over $5,000. Upon submitting the Form I-865, sponsors may receive further correspondence from USCIS for further documentation confirming the change of address.