End of Self-Scheduled InfoPass: USCIS Expands the Information Services Modernization Program

Later this month, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is set to expand online modernization initiatives to six new field offices, including the Detroit Field Office and several offices in the L.A. district. The modernization program, which is set to reach districts on the east coast and in the Midwest next year, should improve information efficiency for all classes of immigration applicants.

The End of InfoPass

Included in the modernization initiative is a new means of information services that would eliminate the self-scheduled InfoPass appointment system. Currently, applicants can schedule appointments online to meet in-person with USCIS representative to receive general information about their case and resources regarding their application. The new system would streamline information services by ending the Infopass appointment system and centralizing case status inquires and information resources through the USCIS Contact Center. There, applicants can receive immediate assistance through online messaging and live phone based support. USCIS hopes by ending the InfoPass appointment service, “emergency and other services that can only be provided in person” will receive more focused support.

Based on internal surveys, USCIS found that many users of the InfoPass self-scheduled appointment program could have saved time by calling the USCIS Contact Center or checking the USCIS website. In the long term, the new modernization efforts will help applicants save time by limiting the hassle of scheduling an in-person appointment. USCIS additionally hopes that by limiting in-person appointments, the service can better allocate resources and staff towards processing and adjudicating applications. For those who require in-person assistance, USCIS states that applicants will still maintain the right to schedule an appointment, and can receive assistance to do so through the new modernized information service program.

Trump Memo Put Congressional Case Assistance at Risk: Immigration Assistance

Many applicants for immigration benefits have found themselves in the office of their local congressperson. By seeking assistance from a local member of Congress, either a senator or representative, constituents with pending immigration cases can find an advocate within the federal government. With support from a Congressional office, those experiencing trouble with their immigration cases can receive specialized help with navigating through inefficient government agencies. However, as first reported by the Daily Beast, this beneficial service may soon be encumbered by unnecessary burdens.

Proposed Changes

The proposed changes to Congressional assistance procedures regulated by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) would drastically increase the volume of paperwork required for Congressional staff to advocate on behalf of constituents. Currently, congressional staff only require a single privacy waiver to contact USCIS on behalf of a constituent. Congressional advocates are then able to make inquires with Federal agencies and coordinate with constituent’s immigration attorneys about any updates to a constituent’s case.  The new changes would require Congressional staff to obtain a new privacy wavier for each inquiry made on the behalf of constituents. For many of these cases, Congressional staffers must contact USCIS and other organizations multiple times to a receive follow up. If the new procedures are adopted, Congressional offices would be over encumbered by pointless paperwork. Additionally, the proposed procedural change would require Congressional assistants to obtain a handwritten and notarized signature signed, under penalty of perjury, by the constituent whose records were involved in any inquiry. The changes would prevent individuals with difficult immigration case issues to seek efficient assistance from their local Congressional office.

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.

USCIS Aims to Slash Some Request for Fee Waiver

Recently, the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) released a proposed revision to fee waivers offered to lower-income immigrants. For those currently living in the United States seeking to naturalize, this proposed change could place a significant financial burden on struggling families. Filed through the Federal Register, the proposed change is currently open for public comment from affected parties until November 27th.

Proposed Change

Currently, the government offers automatic USCIS fee waivers for those individuals receiving means-tested public benefits. Means-tested public benefits include Food Stamps, Medicaid, SSI, TANF, and SCHIP as well as other benefits specific to certain states. Additionally, those within the federal poverty threshold (i.e. those households with an income at or below 150% of the poverty level at the time of filing) and individuals who can prove “financial hardship” can receive a waiver of immigration filing fees.

The proposed change would seek to remove automatic waivers for those with means-tested benefits from the Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver. USCIS states that the change comes as measure to remove fee waiver eligibility based on “benefits [that] can vary from state to state, depending on the state’s income level guidelines.” For example, an applicant from California making over $50,000 a year qualifies for means-tested benefits, whereas an applicant from Alabama earning an equivalent income does not.

By restricting fee waivers to those who fall near the federal poverty line standards and financial hardship standards, USCIS hopes to see a rise in fee revenues. In fiscal year 2017 alone, USCIS granted over $367 million dollars word of fee waivers, an increase of over $20 million from last year. Although revenue will increase for USCIS, many individuals with unstable income will now face a significant financial burden. Naturalization filing fees alone can cost nearly over $600, excluding biometric fees. Thus, a struggling family living in California, where the cost of living is the 4thhighest in the U.S., would have to pay thousands of dollars to file naturalization applications if the change to the fee waiver is approved.

Naturalization Following the Passing of your U.S. citizen spouse: 3 versus 5 years

In the face of a terrible tragedy, foreign national spouses can face even more hardship after their U.S. citizen husband or wife passes. Typically, foreign nationals who are green card holders through their U.S. citizen spouse have the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship following a period of three years in the U.S. Unfortunately, the green card holding widows and widowers of U.S. citizens will face obstacles for future naturalization following the death of their spouse.

Immigration and Nationality Act

Under U.S. immigration law, permanent residents who have lived with their U.S. citizen spouses in the U.S. for at least three years may apply for U.S. citizenship at the end of three years. This allows spouses of U.S. citizens to apply for citizenship two years earlier than required for other permanent residents. Sadly, those individuals who have tragically lost their spouses before applying for or during their application for naturalization may not apply after three years of residence and instead wait the typically five years of residency. According the Immigration and Nationality Act:

A person is ineligible for naturalization as the spouse of a United States citizen under Section 319(a) of the Act if, before or after the filing of the application, the marital union ceases to exist due to death or divorce, or the citizen spouse has expatriated.

Under these restrictions, the surviving spouse may not apply for naturalization as a spouse of a U.S. citizen. Regardless if the application was submitted before the untimely passing of the U.S. citizen sponsor, the application for citizenship becomes invalid at the time death. As such, the INA clarifies that an applicant is ineligible to naturalize as the spouse of a U.S. citizen if their spouse passes away “any time prior to the applicant taking the Oath of Allegiance.” The only exception applies to certain widows or widowers of U.S. citizens who passed away during active-duty status in the U.S. armed forces.

Fee for Premium Processing Rises (DHS & USCIS)

Premium processing will now cost nearly $1,500. A service that significantly shortens the wait period for immigration benefits, premium processing allows applicants an opportunity to receive a decision from the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) within 15 calendar days. Thus, premium processing permits petitioners to know whether their application is approved, denied, or delayed due to insufficient evidence in about two weeks. Though, the extreme benefit of premium processing comes with an extreme cost.

More Funds for Efficient Processing

Few weeks back, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a proposed final rule in the Federal Register to raise the premium processing fee for visa petitions to $1,410, about $200 higher than the current fee. This new price went into effect on October 1st of this year. The increase in price follows the percentage change to the Consumer Price Index, which is around 14.92%.

Each year, USCIS receives over 200,000 Form I-907s, or request for premium processing. With the increase in fees, DHS hopes to raise extra funds to allow for “premium-processing services to business customers, and to make infrastructure improvements in the adjudications and customer service processes.” The additional revenue will allot an extra $44 million; this money could be the key to ending suspensions to premium processing based on backlogs at service centers across the country. Although the cost of premium processing is quite steep, the announcement from DHS could be an indicator of more efficient processing in the months to come.

Premium Processing Suspended: USCIS Delays

On August 28th, the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) issued a notice of further suspension to premium processing for cap-subject H-1B petitions while expanding the premium processing suspension for additional H-1B petitions. The new suspension took effect on September 11, 2018.

Impacts

The suspension of premium processing continues to impact H-1B petitions filed at the Vermont and California Service Centers, with few exceptions. Originally, the suspension of premium processing was to end on September 10th. However, the extension of the suspension is set to end in February of 2019 and is delaying more applications than before. Those who have filed for premium processing before September 11th in anticipation of the original end to the suspension on premium processing will receive a refund of the premium processing fee. According to USCIS, petitions excluded from the limit to premium processing include:

  • Cap-exempt petitions that are filed exclusively at the California Service Center because the employer is cap exempt or the beneficiary will be employed at a qualifying cap exempt institution, entity, or organization.
  • Those petitions filed exclusively at the Nebraska Service Center by an employer requesting a “Continuation of previously approved employment without change with the same employer” with a concurrent request to notify the office in Part 4 so each beneficiary can obtain a visa or be admitted.) or extend the stay of each beneficiary because the beneficiary now holds this status.

The continued suspension of premium processing marks even longer periods of wait time for those wishing to work in the United States under the H-1B program. USCIS claims the continued suspension will help the Service Center address serious backlogs and it is unclear whether premium processing will be available for 2019 filing season.

TPS Re-Registration Period Open for Somalis

Unlike many beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Somalis will have an opportunity to maintain their protected status until 2020. USCIS announced an 18-month extension period of TPS benefits for Somalis ending on March 17, 2020.

Re-Registration

Applicants who wish to re-register for TPS must submit a Form I-821 before October 26thof this year. Beneficiaries may request an EAD during the re-registration process, or separately at a later date. Those who apply before the October deadline for EADs will receive new employment authorization with an expiration of March 17thof 2020. However, if a Somali TPS beneficiary possesses an EAD with an expiration date of September 17th, they may not receive a new EAD until after the expiration. Thus, USCIS has automatically extended the validity of EADs for Somali TPS beneficiaries until March 16thof 2019.

Cause for TPS

For several decades, Somalis have fled armed conflict in search of a safer environment. Because the situation continues to deteriorate in Somalia, the Secretary of Homeland Security extended the designation of Somalia as a region eligible for TPS.

Uncertainty for TPS

Although the 18-month extension is good news for Somalis who have lived and worked in the United States for decades, there is increasing uncertainty regarding the longevity of the TPS benefits program. In the last several months, nations (including Haiti, Nicaragua and Nepal) have lost TPS status. The program is one of the many legal immigration programs that are at risk under new executive directives.

USCIS Permits Negative Consultation Letters from Labor Unions: O-Visa

In a recent decision, USCIS will now accept copies of negative consultation letters directly from labor unions in regards to a current or future O visa petition request. Now, labor unions will have the opportunity to speak against potential O-Visa beneficiaries without interference.

O- Visa Program

The O-1 Visa benefits individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in a variety of careers (e.g. science, education, business, athletics, or the arts) including the motion picture and television industry. The O-Visa program benefits also includes individuals that accompany O-1 visa holder (i.e. assistants, integral partners, dependents). Under the O-Visa program, eligible individuals may work in the United States for a petitioning employer for up to three years with the opportunity to extend an additional three years. To be considered for an O-Visa, applicants must submit a written consultation from a peer group related to the field or a letter from a person with expertise in the beneficiary’s field. Typically, the labor unions or peer group write in affirmation of the beneficiary. Now, labor unions can urge USCIS to deny an O-Visa application.

Labor Unions for Change

The change comes following several meetings between the director of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna, and several labor unions. Union leaders were concerned that many O-Visa applications had provided USCIS with false affirmative letters. Labor unions can now directly send negative letters regarding a potential O-Visa beneficiary to USCIS. Although the decision serves to provide greater transparency in the O-Visa application process, the increased involvement of labor unions may create even more barriers for those wishing to work in the United States.

CBP Issues Travel Reminder: Departure Date

This year, the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) launched a new electronic reminder system for foreign national travelers. The new emailing system sends reminders to travelers about the period of time remaining for their particular travel visa. Not only does the email reminder system help travelers keep track of their period of stay, the CBP email reminder will provide notifications for travelers who have overstayed their period of admission.

Email Notification

Within 10 days of the end of a traveler’s admissions period, travelers may receive email notifications from CBP counting down the remaining days left of their stay in the United States. If a traveler overstays, they will continue to receive notice of an overstay violation. In addition to email notifications, travelers may refer to the I-94 website to check their compliance with period of stay limitations. Via the website, travelers may click the “view compliance” tab and enter their personal information to receive updates on their remaining period of stay.

Phishing Warning

Phishing, or email scams, are forms of electronic correspondence that attempt to exploit online users through false email correspondence. Often, travelers receive fake emails from users pretending to represent the federal government of the United States. These emails may falsely notify travelers of urgent notices to their period of stay. Never provide your personal information to an online source claiming to represent the CBP unless you are sure the notification is legitimate. Email notifications should come only from travelerscompliance@cbp.dhs.gov. As fraudulent emails are quite common, it is always advised to check the email address of any notification sent by an official agency.

Stages of Notification

CBP will gradually launch the new travelers notification system. Certain Visa Waiver Program (VWP) recipients are the first to receive email notice from CBP, and most classes of admission will soon be added to the notice system.