Tag Archives: backlogs

Department of State Visa Backlog Update

Only have a few minutes? Here are the key takeaways:

  • In January of 2020, the NVC backlog was at 80,000. Fifteen months later, the current number of applicants that are ready for interviews is 481,965.
  • DOS is prioritizing family unification with four priority tiers:

    Tier 1
    are family-based immediate relative visas and adoption-based visas, as well as age-out cases and certain special immigrant visas.
    Tier 2 is going to be other immediate relative visas for spouses, fiancés, parents, and returning resident visas.
    Tier 3 is family preference visas, other special immigrant visas for certain employees of the US government
    Tier 4 includes all other immigrant visas, including employment-preference visas and diversity visas.
  • Fiance visas are part of a National Interest Exemption and are not subject to geographical travel restrictions.
  • The Diversity Visa is a fiscal year program, so as regulations currently stand, all visas must be issued or approved by September 30, 2021 or else they cannot be utilized.
  • DOS is urging patience as consular posts continue to deal with the effects of the pandemic.

Summary of Q & A with Department of State’s Neal Vermillion

Neal Vermillion is a division chief in the Visa Office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. His division is the Office of Field Operations, which provides guidance to consular sections, embassies, and consulates around the world. He has served for the DOS since the early 2000s all over the world in different field offices and consulates. He is glad to have the opportunity to talk and answer questions about the unprecedented situation with the visa backlog.

 This event is intended to address issues of general interest related to the content of the visa backlog. Questions and answers have been paraphrased and should not be interpreted as verbatim quotes.

Neal would like to go over the recent history of the backlog as a primer before beginning his Q&A:

Overseas immigrant visa processing has been shut down due to the pandemic for the past year, which has affected the immigrant visa backlogs in an interesting way. Last spring, President Trump signed Presidential Proclamation 10014, which prevented the issuance of many immigrant visas. There are still many geographic proclamations in effect which have been issued to protect the health and security of Americans. Proclamations are in effect which cover 33 countries. These issues have all contributed to the creation of an unprecedented backlog. Getting out of the backlog is an ongoing process, although it will be hindered by the ongoing nature of the pandemic.

The reopening process has been hampered by slow vaccination rates outside of the United States, where the pandemic remains a much more serious problem. Neal would like the listeners to know that the Department of State is aware of the problems that visa applicants face and is committed to providing relief and decreasing the Immigrant Visa backlogs.

What is the DOS doing to decrease the visa backlogs worldwide? 

We are fully committed to reducing that backlog, and honestly keeping people informed is part of that effort, which is part of why we’re doing this. I also want to highlight that we have started posting in the last month and will update monthly on our travel.state.gov the stats of the immigrant visa backlog. The National Visa Center – the current number of applicants that are ready for interviews is 481,965 – this is up from January’s figure of 408,255. For comparison, in our last normal month of processing, back in January of 2020, almost fifteen months ago, we had a backlog of 80,000 then. That number will fluctuate over time, and it does not change in a linear way.

In terms of what we’re doing, we’re throwing all available resources that we can at the backlog and we’re telling our overseas consular sections and our embassies and consulates overseas that, after services to US citizens, processing of immigrant visas and fiancé visas is our number one priority. Please understand we are continuing to deal with circumstances on the ground, and our ongoing response to the backlog will depend on these circumstances. We are trying to process these applicants as quickly and safely as possible.

How are IV applicants being prioritized?

We have an article on travel.state.gov from our newsroom that details this, but I’ll answer here as well. Basically, we have many immigrant visa categories. We have relatives, we have employment visas, we have family visas, we have diversity visas.

We don’t want to prioritize any of these categories, however, during the pandemic, we’ve been forced to make difficult decisions on how our consular sections should prioritize different visas. As we develop a framework for prioritization, the principle that underlies our plan is the prioritization of family reunification. It’s a clear priority of the US government, it is a clear priority in the INA, it is specifically our prioritization guidance that we have given publicly as well as to our consular sections. Our guidance relies on a clear direction from Congress that requires the adoption of policy that prioritizes family reunification.

We’ve given our divided immigrant visa work into four priority tiers. We have directed consular sections where it is possible to schedule appointments within all four priority tiers. The majority of the applications that a section will process if they are able to are going to be within the first two tiers.

Tier 1 are family-based immediate relative visas and adoption-based visas, as well as age-out cases and certain special immigrant visas.

Tier 2 is going to be other immediate relative visas for spouses, fiancés, parents, and returning resident visas.

Tier 3 is family preference visas, other special immigrant visas for certain employees of the US government

Tier 4 includes all other immigrant visas, including employment-preference visas and diversity visas.

As mentioned, we’re going to try and do as much as we can for each of those tiers. Some consular stations are processing some cases from each of these tiers.

Will DV 2021 selectees be able to get an interview before the September 30, 2021 deadline?

Diversity visas are a hot topic; we’ve gotten this question before.

The good news is that Presidential Proclamation 10014 has been rescinded, so for the first half of this fiscal year, we were unable to process diversity visas due to that proclamation. As I’m sure people who are interested in diversity visas know, that program is specific to each fiscal year. I can tell you that our colleagues that are responsible for this program, which is the Consular Center, has begun to schedule and process documentarily qualified visas. We truly value the diversity visa program and are going to do what we can.

That said, this pandemic is unpredictable. We’ve seen spikes in the past month in South Asia and in other places. It’s impossible to forecast how many DVs we will issue this year. It is very likely that we will not be able to issue all of the diversity visas this year. 55,000 is the maximum we are able to issue each year.

Obviously last year we weren’t able to get as close to that ceiling as we like. We are committed to doing as much as possible. As has been mentioned earlier, we have local conditions and restrictions that have forced us to prioritize. We are going to do as much as we can before the end of the fiscal year, but it will not be near the 55,000 allowed by the statute.

Will DV 2020 selectees who were not interviewed prior to September 2020 be interviewed?

I understand the frustrations of the selectees from last fiscal year. It’s kind of the opposite of what happened this year, where we processed smoothly for the first half of the year and then were interrupted by COVID.

To go back to what I said earlier, the diversity visa program is a fiscal year-specific program. Applicants who were refused because of that proclamation last year cannot be interviewed. The terms of these programs – the fact that it is specific to fiscal year is outlined in the statute. It’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

If you did win and were selected for DV 2020, you can enter future DV lotteries.

That’s a great point, and I know many many people apply for the program year after year after year, and after fifteen years they finally get it. There are no guarantees, of course, it is a selection process.

Why can’t immigrant visa applicants be interviewed virtually?

Good question. Obviously, we’re doing Zoom and YouTube here, technology has changed quite a bit. I’ll give you a straightforward answer – maybe not the most welcome answer – immigrant visa applicants are required by statute to be interviewed in person. As a consular officer who has worked in the field, there are some benefits I should talk about with this process:

National security is our top priority when we adjudicate these applications. Each prospective traveler undergoes extensive screenings. Part of that is that our officers not only look at the visa application, but they also talk to the applicant to make an informed decision about whether the person is eligible or whether there are any national security concerns.

Can you talk about K-1 visas specifically and where they are on the priority list?

K-1 visas are a priority, as I mentioned earlier, we have four tiers of immigrant visa priority, and that the majority of consular sections will be focusing on the first two tiers. Fiancé visas are in that tier as well, along with spousal visas and immediate relative visas in our tier 2. They are a focus. Depending on the post, the backlogs in these cases may be longer than others.

You mentioned for fiancée visas specifically that the geographic proclamations no longer affect those visas?

That is correct. That’s worth reinforcing, since just last month. There is a National Interest Exception. There is a blanket declaration from the Secretary of State that these are a National Interest Exception.

How long does it take to process a current EB I-485 application?

I can’t really get into that, because I’m not an expert. There are so many areas that influence processing time. As many of you know, most immigrant visa applications start with a petition filed with USCIS, and that’s an area I can’t really get into. USCIS I’m sure is facing their own resource constraints, their own pandemic restraints.

Most of our immigrant visa cases get routed through the National Visa Center, which also has its own processing. It takes time, and sometimes people submit documentation that’s not complete, and it takes time to go back and get that documentation, so – public service announcement, please make sure your application is documentarily complete before sending.

At the end, if you have cases sitting in the National Visa Center that we are able to schedule, it comes down to individual posts. I’m not even able to answer that question directly. On the positive sign, we don’t have a proclamation preventing us from processing cases directly, and many of our posts have started resuming services. As of a week or two ago, there were a dozen posts that were not doing immigrant visas. Some were COVID related, such as the spike in South Asia for example, and some were not COVID related, such as Burma and Russia, for example.

Do you know about the status of the KCC backlog processing Diversity Visas? It’s been months.

The KCC, I talked with my colleagues there, and my advice is to just be patient. They are processing as much as they can in the order in which the cases are received. For those of you who are waiting for scheduling, please wait until you are contacted by your particular embassy or consulate. I’ve seen other questions about KCC, and their leadership has reminded me to tell you that if you’re used to calling KCC, they had to send the entire staff home due to the pandemic spike last fall. They used to accept phone calls, they don’t anymore. It’s best to get in touch with KCC via email, although their email system is also backlogged. They are doing their best, please be patient. KCC will get to them, and I encourage you not to send a second or third or fourth follow up. We’re trying to get as many DVs scheduled as we can.

Why are there zero interviews scheduled except for a few expedite cases in the F2 category?

Again, I’m not sure if I can get into each specific category because there are so many factors. Certain posts are able to schedule interviews, depending on their local restrictions. I understand you had on my colleague Charlie Oppenheim who can provide more details on when numbers are available for scheduling, and when they can be called “current.” It really comes down to the particular circumstances in that country.

To get back to the tiers, family preference immigrant visas are in the third priority tier. We are trying to process some, for posts that have backlogs, their emphasis will be on processing fiancés and immediate relatives.

For the Tier 1 category of visa preference, do applicants receive their interview appointment without waiting for the first and the fifteenth of the given months or will the 2NL be sent with no wait time?

This goes back to where we have a multi-step process to talk about. What the NVC does is one thing. The case might be ready to be processed pretty quickly, but a certain consular section or embassy or consulate may not be ready to accept those cases. Many consular posts have determined that they are not planning to accept new cases from the national visa center for the next several months. They will work through those and other high-priority cases before scheduling anything new.

If I have an I-485 AOS done in OCT 2020 for an EB-3, can we request our medicals now before a request is made by USCIS?

I would just follow the directions that are given by the NVC and USCIS. The answer to that is probably gonna be a no, just because the medicals come later in the process. You can tell from this conversation that a lot of my discussion is going to be general. I’m not able to talk about any individual case.

Are there any plans to increase staff?

Good question. I’m not the resources guy, so I wouldn’t be the person to ask about that. I’d love to have more staff, but this is not purely a staffing issue. If the world were perfect, Congress would now where to put its resources for staffing – first of all, staffing takes a significant amount of time with training and all that, but the important points that in many of these backlog cases, the backlog is coming from those other factors I’ve talked about – the Presidential Proclamations, the fact that we’ve had to shut down, and the closures at consulates and embassies. It’s going to be a non-linear process, but we will get there as quickly and safely as we can.

Do embassies prioritize medical professionals such as nurses under the EB-3 category?

Good questions. EB-3 is an employment preference category, which would put in priority tier 4. We recognize the importance of medical professionals, our posts are doing their best to process as many as they can, but there are certain exceptions, but at this time all employment-based preferences are in the lowest tier of priority. It really depends on your consular section.

Is It possible to maintain or go back to regular capacity by providing a COVID test less than 72 hours before an appointment?

That’s a really good question, and I applaud the creative thinking, but, unfortunately, each consular section is operating in a different locality. We need to follow the local guidelines for shutdowns and social distancing while also following CDC guidelines for operations.

Why would consulates not book IR-1 or CR-1 interviews?

IR-1s are immediate relatives, so without knowing the specific circumstances of the consulate that you’re talking about, I can’t comment on why interviews are not being scheduled. Again – patience, patience, patience. In that particular locale, the list is probably long, and circumstances are probably preventing the processing of immediate relatives, and they’re working through it as fast as they can.

Have you actually ordered all embassies to resume IV processing? What are you doing to ensure that posts are following orders?

No, posts have not been ordered to resume IV processing. Let me review the guidance that we’re talking about: We need to prioritize the health and safety of our applicants and our staff, and about the people who come into contact with those people. We cannot order a consular section overseas to proceed if it is unsafe to do so. What I can say though is that, as they are safe to reopen, consulates must follow the prioritization guidelines I mentioned earlier. Please be patient. It’s not an easy situation for any of us.

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Immigration & Travel Challenges Leave Green Card Holders Considering U.S. Citizenship

NOTE: USCIS filing fees for Form N-400, Application for Naturalization increase 83%, from $640 to $1,170 on October 2, 2020. (This rule is currently on hold per a nationwide injunction.

Even prior to the pandemic, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services made the news for processing delays across visa categories. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to additional delays, including green card printing backlogs. The agency blamed declining requests for immigration services when it requested $1.2 billion in funding from Congress earlier this year. When the negotiations fell through, USCIS contacted approximately two-thirds of the workforce to warn of furloughs starting August 30, 2020. Amid the budget woes, DHS also published a final rule increasing prices for many immigration benefits, including increasing the cost to apply for citizenship from $640 to $1,170 starting on October 2, 2020.

Recently, an independent government watchdog determined that the appointment of top officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were invalid due to the agency’s disregard for the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Federal judges have already struck down some H-1B requirements, but we could see increased legal challenges for policies enacted during the past two years.

Even green card holders have been subject to restrictions during the President’s travel bans. Many permanent residents are considering naturalization to not only avoid the uncertainties of shifting immigration regulations, but to participate fully in the U.S. democratic process.

When should I file for U.S. citizenship?

Naturalization, or the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, is largely a personal choice based on your circumstances and goals. We will provide information on the requirements and eligibility for citizenship, as well as an overview of the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens.

Eligibility Overview

Typically, you must be a green card holder for 5 years before applying for naturalization. Some spouses of U.S. citizens are eligible if they have been a lawful permanent resident for at least 3 years and have been living in marital union with the same U.S. citizen during that period.

Residency Requirements

You must maintain continuous residence for at least five years (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen as described above). You must also establish that you have resided in the state or service district for 3 months prior to filing. If you travel outside the U.S. for more than six months but less than a year or you are absent for more than 1 year, you may break the continuity of residence. Even multiple absences of less than 6 months may concern an immigration officer: you need to provide additional evidence that your actual dwelling place and residence is in the United States. You must show that you have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the five years preceding your filing (or 18 months out of 3 years if married to a U.S. citizen).

If you are considering naturalization, you should consult with an attorney when planning extended travel to ensure you are maintaining your permanent residence.

Citizenship Qualifications

USCIS will evaluate whether you are a person of “good moral character” and requires that you demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. constitution. You must also have an understanding of U.S. history and government and be able to read, write, and speak basic English to pass the required civics and English test. The interview will be conducted in English and you are expected to be able to answer in English. When you pass the interview and test portions, you will be scheduled for an oath ceremony. Last fall, USCIS started piloting changes to the tests, with changes set to go into effect later this year or early 2021.

What happens if I don’t pass?

You can take the English and civics tests between 60 and 90 days after the date of your initial interview. If you fail once again, you must apply for naturalization again. If there was wrongdoing or bias on the part of the interviewing officer, there may be an opportunity to appeal the decision, but this is a rare occurrence. There is no limit to the number of times you can apply for naturalization.

Becoming a Citizen

At the ceremony, you will be required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. The oath is as follows:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

At the ceremony, you are required to return your green card. It will no longer be needed as you will receive a Certificate of Naturalization after taking the oath. You should review the certificate and notify USCIS of any errors before leaving the ceremony.

Citizenship Rights and Responsibilities

As a green card holder, you are probably already familiar with tax reporting requirements and other responsibilities that come with living and working in the United States. After you become a U.S. citizen, you are afforded additional rights and responsibilities. You should update your Social Security record, apply for a U.S. passport if you intend to travel abroad, and you can register to vote. USCIS states that U.S. citizens are eligible to:

  • Vote.
    Only citizens can vote in federal elections. Most states also restrict the right to vote, in most elections, to U.S. citizens.
  • Serve on a jury. 
    Only U.S. citizens can serve on a federal jury. Most states also restrict jury service to U.S. citizens. Serving on a jury is an important responsibility for U.S. citizens.
  • Travel with a U.S. passport. 
    A U.S. passport enables you to get assistance from the U.S. government when overseas, if necessary.
  • Bring family members to the U.S. 
    S. citizens generally get priority when petitioning to bring family memberspermanently to this country.
  • Obtain citizenship for children under 18 years of age. 
    In most cases, a child born abroad to a U.S. citizenis automatically a U.S. citizen.
  • Apply for federal jobs. 
    Certain jobs with government agencies require U.S. citizenship.
  • Become an elected official. 
    Only citizens can run for federal office (U.S. Senate or House of Representatives) and for most state and local offices.
  • Keep your residency. 
    A U.S. citizen’s right to remain in the United States cannot be taken away.
  • Become eligible for federal grants and scholarships. 
    Many financial aid grants, including college scholarships and funds given by the government for specific purposes, are available only to U.S. citizens.
  • Obtain government benefits. 
    Some government benefits are available only to U.S. citizens.

Explore additional rights and responsibilities on the USCIS website.

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Employer I-9 Update: Using I-797s During EAD Production Delays

Employer I-9 Update: Using I-797s During EAD Production Delays

COVID-19 has led to unprecedented EAD production delays, leaving many foreign workers without proof of work authorization. A federal judge ordered the delayed green cards and EADs to be printed within seven days, but with one production facility shut down and a furlough looming, workers may still be left waiting.

USCIS announced that due to the printing production delays, employers may now accept Form I-797, Notice of Action, with a notice date on or after 12/1/2019 through 8/20/2020 (that indicates approval of the EAD) during I-9 verification. The approval notice is an acceptable list C #7 document for compliance through December 1, 2020, even though the notice states it is not evidence of employment authorization.

The announcement notes that the I-797 does not provide evidence of identity or serve as a document establishing both identity and employment authorization. Any employee presenting an approval notice for new employment must also prove their identity with acceptable List B documents. Employees presenting the document for reverification purposes can use the I-797 as proof of work authorization under list C.

The employer must reverify any employee who presents the I-797 Notice of Action as a List C document by December 1, 2020.

Learn More

UPDATED: I-9 Compliance Flexibility Extended Through September 19, 2020

Resuming on Wednesday, September 16 are our weekly immigration webinars! Register for the webinar or email us with any additional questions.

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Citizenship & Immigration Services to Furlough Majority of Workers

Citizenship & Immigration Services to Furlough Majority of Workforce

UPDATE 8/25/2020: USCIS Postpones Administrative Furlough

USCIS requested $1.2 billion from Congress as part of a coronavirus relief package, but when negotiations seemed to fall through, the President signed a series of executive orders instead. The orders did not address the agency’s funding requests. Earlier this month USCIS notified approximately 13,400 of 20,000 employees that they would be furloughed starting August 30, 2020.

USCIS is primarily funded by fees collected from providing immigration services. Previously this year, the agency announced fees would be increasing by an average of 20% to recover operational costs. Those changes go into effect on October 2, 2020. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed that the current fee structure would leave the agency underfunded by $1 billion per year. In the earlier request to Congress, USCIS proposed a 10% service fee surcharge in addition to $1.2 billion in funding.

With a furlough of two-thirds of the USCIS workforce, individuals and businesses applying for immigration benefits may see additional delays in processing. Some categories are already suffering from delays and the earlier shutdown of a printing facility led to backlogs for green cards and EADs.

Don’t wait until the last minute to file for new visas or extensions! Contact us to get started before the delays affect your immigration status!

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