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Q&A With a Former USCIS Officer – Boundless Immigration

Jan 31, 2022

Hello, everybody. Welcome back for our “former immigration officer Q&A.” I’m Erik Finch.

I just want to emphasize again that I am not a lawyer, I am not a current government official, and none of the information that we talk about today is legal advice. What I am is a manager here at Boundless Immigration and a former USCIS adjudicator and a former Department of State consular officer. We hold these Q&As just to have a chance to talk directly to folks who are interested in immigration and want to learn more about the process. I will be speaking purely on my own experiences and generalities around what I’ve learned about the immigration process. None of this information is legal advice, and please don’t take it as specific to your case.

So, let’s go ahead and get started.

Which field office processes IOE code?

IOE is the code. As we know, the three letters before your receipt number usually indicate the office or service center where your case is being processed. In the case of the IOE code, I don’t actually know what that stands for or if it stands for anything, but, it means is that it was a digitally filed application.

So, you filed it digitally, or in some cases, forms like the I-485, USCIS will take the paper application that you sent and then scan it and digitize it and turn it into a digital file for adjudication. Those IOE forms mean that your case is being processed digitally, which is usually good news because those cases tend to flow through the system a bit faster.

You don’t have to wait for them to move your file around. And at the point at which the adjudicator is ready to approve your case, they can simply do that in the system, and it will send an automated message to the green card processing and printing facility to go ahead and print and ship your green card.

That’s one thing that the USA has really been trying to push forward with is this modernization and digitalization of their process. And, if you get an Iowa receipt number, that indicates that you’re one of the people who are part of that process.

The NVC asked for my W2 months ago. Do I send them the 2021 version now?

Yes. I think if you’re responding to an RFE, generally you want to give them the most up-to-date information. There are cases, like you say, around tax season where if you still have time to respond and you think you’ll have more up to date documents available, especially if you think they’ll be favorable to your case, it may be worth considering including that more up to date information inside the response. But ultimately, only a lawyer could really tell you for sure whether that will be something that will be applicable to the RFE.

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I think in general, when it comes to RFE responses or providing information to USCIS, you want to be as thorough as possible, and that includes things that you think may help at the interview step. If you want to bring some more up-to-date documents and things to show them on your financials or evidence of your relationship, I think that’s always helpful.

Is there another way to expedite EADS if not in health care?

This one is one I’m a little bit less familiar with.

I guess I’ll approach it two ways. Yes, there is the healthcare exception that’s in effect, and there is specific guidance from USCIS on how to pursue that expedited request. Now, behind that, there is a more general policy at USCIS about expediting requests that I think a lot of people are curious about, so I’ll say one thing and then I’ll say the other.

The actual policy around expediting requests is quite open.

If you look at the website, they give you a number of criteria, like, “is it an urgent or humanitarian request” or is it some kind of family emergency? They basically tell you, hey, there’s this process. You can reach out and plead your case.

But, what I will also tell you from having worked inside USCIS is that these expedite requests are rarely granted and usually only around humanitarian-type situations that we would recognize is pretty extreme. People feel like if the explanation request is not granted, the petitioner may not still be alive, or if that’s the only chance for the beneficiary to see the petitioner in a relatively short amount of time.

So sometimes if the petitioner has a terminal illness, then the agency will look at that and say, okay, well, we do want these people to be able to say goodbye to each other and take that step in the process so they will look at that type of stuff.

But yeah, what usually doesn’t pass are things like “I need to start a new job” or “I have some kind of academic program I want to get into” or things that are emergencies for people on a personal basis but don’t really constitute the kind of life and death criteria that USCIS would consider making an exception for. And also, I should say, the expedite request. Usually, the response is not super quick.

This is one where I don’t think there’s really a set process around it. But sometimes if things are in the news, the agency will be more responsive than if it’s just sort of a personal matter that you’re trying to help them understand.

So, I just say that not to promote anybody to try to get their personal crises in the news, but just because that’s what I’ve seen in the past. In some cases, they’ve been responsive to the pressure that they get externally around certain types of controversial events or things when they’re denying people access to relatives or taking an absurdly long time processing a petition.

So, expedites are possible, but the only really specific scenario where they’re encouraging people to seek expedite requests right now as the EADS for healthcare workers. I think we can all understand why that would be one that they were prioritizing.

How does USCIS track the couple’s finances, individual credit cards, and tax returns?

I would say: taxes and tax filings, pay stubs and W2s, and bank accounts, I don’t just mean the general verification that you have a bank account, but the list of charges and things like that. If they really want to see that a couple’s finances are intertwined, they’ll look at the accounts that they have and the bank account statements. If there’s a lot of activity and it looks like it’s like a sort of an account for daily use, then that carries more weight than an account that some money was put in and then nothing’s ever really been done with it.

Yes, I think that with those three things combined, this is where the financial part of it bleeds over a little into the evidence or relationship part because they’re kind of looking for two things with your finances. It depends on what visa you’re applying for, but if the 864 form and that eligibility around public charge is part of your immigration process, then, yeah, they’re going to need to confirm that one of the people involved in the process, including possibly a joint sponsor, has the financial wherewithal to overcome that minimum requirement.

And then the other part where the finances come into play is what they call “commingling of finances,” which serves as evidence that you have a valid relationship.

So, the thinking is that if two people say they’re married but have done zero effort to bring their financial worlds in sync by, like, having joint bank accounts and credit cards and things like that, then it doesn’t really seem very convincing that they’re in a legitimate relationship. Now that’s a little bit of a generalization, and I think they’re open to discussion about how everybody is a little different. I know some members of my family or friends who are married have separate bank accounts and have one person’s name on certain documents and property and some of it’s on the other person’s name, but you would want to be able to talk them through that at your interview if that’s the case.

And if what you’re telling them in that scenario is in alignment with what your financial documents show, then usually that’s fine. It’s just one piece of evidence that they look at, in addition to other things. I think where people get into trouble is when they say “we’re married, we’re applying for a green card, but we don’t live together. We have no joint bank accounts. We don’t share any finances. We don’t seem to have strong relationships with each other’s family or friends that would indicate that they have a social life or that they’re doing things together.”

When all those things add up to a concern, then that’s when they start considering whether the relationship is even legitimate at all. I hope that’s a bit of useful context.

And yeah, credit card statements would work the same as bank account statements where they see that there’s a lot of activity and daily use of those credit cards that are held by both parties. That would also work to prove the commingling of finances.

How will USCIS respond to expedite work authorization for healthcare workers?

This one I’m a little fuzzy about because I haven’t dealt with this process directly. I would imagine that once the request is put in, you’ll receive some kind of like, I-797 “notice of action” that indicates their processing or reviewing your expedite request. And then, ideally, you would just be placed in an expedited queue and received an actual employment authorization document sooner than you would have otherwise.

This would be sort of like DACA, where I think if people meet the criteria for the expedite, they would get it, and then that process would work. I don’t really have good timelines for this because it’s pretty specific to health care workers, but the fact that this is a specific exception that they’ve made and encouraged people to apply for, I would imagine that it goes pretty quickly.

I mean, there are some processes at USCIS that can get through in a few months, and this would likely be one of them. So sorry not to have more detailed information on that, but that’s a little bit of a newer program and something that I didn’t have a lot of exposure to.

How are the F2A petitions going? How long is the process taking?

So, a couple of different things to discuss here. For people who are less familiar, the F2A is a preference-based visa category for the spouses and children of legal permanent residents and green cardholders.

Yes, there are not a lot of immigration petitions that green card holders can file. US citizens are primarily the ones who are able to petition for immigration benefits for their foreign relatives and spouses, but in the case of the spouse and child, yes, even a green card holder can apply for that.

But there’s a cap, and that’s why it’s a preference-based category. I think this question could theoretically be addressing two different parts of that, right. One is, what is the wait time?

As we all know, preference-based categories, “the adult children of US citizens, the married children of US citizens, the spouses and children of LPRs, the unmarried adult children of LPRs, the married brothers and sisters of US citizens,” can all be applied for, but they have yearly caps, they have country-based quotas. And for that reason, over time, in some cases, those queues, those lines can get quite long.

For example, for the adult siblings of US citizens from Mexico, it’s about a 25-year wait from the time you file your petition until the time that you get to your place in line where you can actually file for your visa or adjustment of status. Now, that’s an extreme example, but there are a number of preference-based family categories, especially now when there’s such a backlog that’s been created by the pandemic, have gotten quite long in some cases.

This affects employment-based visa applicants as well. So, in the case of F2A, I think the good news is that we want to preserve and reunite families, spouses and children of people, and green card holders living in the US.

Yes, they deserve to be with their immediate family, and that’s something that the law tends to preserve. So, for the most part, F2A petitions, look at the Visa Bulletin, and they should still be current for most countries. On that Visa Bulletin, you can see the wait times for all the preference-based categories: family and employment-based.

It’s a little confusing of a web page to navigate, but essentially, it’ll tell you the date that you had to have entered the line, started the process, and filed your petition in order to now be able to at this particular month, go ahead and start the actual visa application.

So, I’m looking at F2A, and it says “C,” which means current, which means that anybody who files a petition can immediately file a visa application or adjustment of status application along with that petition. So that’s good news.

For spouses and children of LPRs, that means that, essentially, at least temporarily, while these dates stay current, they are able to basically apply as if they’re immediate relative category and go ahead and go through the whole process that way.

Now, that being said, I’m not sure if this question is asking how long the petition process takes or not. It’s a little ambiguous, so I’ll just quickly touch on two other aspects of wait time.

One is “how fast is the process taking for the petition once it’s filed?”

F2A petitions end up going through a different process, but it’s one I-130 form. It’s the same form that’s filed for virtually all the family-based petitions. I think that’s taking about eight to twelve months for most folks right now, so that would be about the time that it took to get the petition approved.

And then depending on whether the foreign spouse was overseas or in the US, one of two things will happen. You would file for a visa appointment. You’ll be contacted by the National Visa Center to set up an appointment for the interview at the US embassy in the foreign country.

Or you would be able to go ahead again. Since they’re current, you could theoretically have filed your I-485 along with the F2A petition. And then you would have to wait an additional few months for your interview to be scheduled at a USCIS field office for the preference-based categories. If you exclude or the wait time that it takes in order for you to be current or you are current, it will function mostly on the same timelines that the similar immediate relative petition would take to process through the USCIS process.

Green card holder and citizen. What is the difference to apply for spouse? The processing time is different for these two cases to get approval for the I-130.

So, we covered a little bit of this in the prior question, but yeah, it’s a different process.

US citizens are able to file for their spouse as what we call “immediate relative category,” an IR-1 or an IR-6 if they’re adjusting in the US. Those have no caps or no quotas. They simply file their I-130 and their I-485 at the same time. There’s no wait for currency; there’s no queue.

It just takes as long as it takes to process through the USCIS process, which I think it varies a lot. And we’ve talked about this before on these Q&As, but assuming your field office is caught up, I think usually it takes about a year.

I think when I left the Portland field office, that was about the turnaround time to receive an interview for a pretty simple immediate relative application. LPRs are technically applying for that F2A visa we just discussed.

And again, assuming it’s current, they’re able to apply the same way. One interesting thing is, I do feel like for various reasons, the F2A process is slightly faster than the IR-1 process, assuming that they were current and didn’t have a built-in delay. We would see those F2A applications come through fairly quickly. And also, the nice thing about the F2A is if you have a child, you don’t have to file an additional I-485 for the child like you do for a US citizen immediate relative application.

The F2A can just put the children on the I-130 and then receive the visas off the I-485 for what they call the primary applicant.

So, yeah, sorry, that’s a small technicality that maybe seems like a bigger deal from my point of view, but there is a kind of interesting difference between the two processes. And it feels like it makes that process slightly faster for LPR F2A applicants sometimes.

But yeah, the processing time for the I-130 should be similar. So, you would get that approval notice. And then there are some cases where F2As get looked at for different things at different offices, and those timelines can vary a little bit.

And, of course, we also have to remember that the actual field office where you’re going have their own backlogs and wait times. So, we’ve talked about this before. In some of the bigger cities, like Seattle or New York or parts of California, you may have an additional several months of wait time just to get scheduled for an appointment, whereas if you’re in an area where the field office is smaller or the applicant pool is smaller, you might be able to get the actual appointment for your interview much faster.

Yeah, I realize that’s kind of an ambiguous answer. I know it’s very difficult sometimes to really think through all the different things that are coming, all the different sorts of processing time, etc. But yeah, I think the general hope is that people’s spouses, in particular, can get through the process from start to finish in like twelve to 16 months. And I feel like that’s still most of the time how it goes.

Background checks?

This is one I’m going to be very circumspect about because this is a process that’s a little more sensitive, but just to refer directly to what is in the actual law and what things they’re checking for with folks.

USCIS is a little bit more limited in what kind of background checks they can do on American citizens. American citizens have various laws to protect their privacy and things like that. Now, in order to be eligible to file for foreign citizens to get immigration benefits, there is some degree of information that you have to divulge to the agency. There are questions about certain types of offenses that they’ve determined could potentially put the person that you’re petitioning for in danger. That is something that they’ll ask about and look for, but they don’t collect.

There was an attempt, I think, a couple of years ago to introduce a scenario where they would collect fingerprints and other biometrics from the actual US citizen petitioner. I don’t think they were successful in pushing that forward. There was some resistance to that in Congress and things like that. So really, what they’re checking the sponsor or the petitioner for are some very specific things such as violence against women and children, making sure that there’s nothing in their criminal history that would serve as an indicator that the people that they’re trying to petition for could be put in danger. The beneficiary, it’s much more comprehensive, and they’re going to look and ask questions about pretty much all of your criminal history, even including fairly minor things.

And they’ll do that in various ways. They’ll take fingerprints, and they’ll ask for police records from countries that you’ve lived in overseas to see if there’s any official documentation of anything that you’ve done before. They’ll look at certain international databases and things that they have access to to see if there have been any problems anywhere else that they need to be aware of.

And they’ll ask you questions. It’s important that you tell the factual and honest truth about criminal history, regardless of whether they already have access to the information or not, because you have to remember that you’re starting an immigration process that will involve multiple extra steps and anything that they uncover each of these times that you’re put in front of a consular officer or you’re having a discussion with a US official that’s sort of on the record.

And if they discover later that there was something that wasn’t disclosed or they get access to some information that you didn’t talk about or reveal, then not only can they get you in trouble and deny the application, but they could roll back a lot of the other things that were given, including green cards and past travel visas, making it very difficult for you to successfully receive any other immigration benefit in the future.

F11 visas? (Unmarried sons and daughters of US citizens.)

One of the more confusing things that exist in the immigration system, the family-based immigration system, is “what’s going on with children?”

How do we define it? What are the ages? What happens when people get married? When are they eligible for certain visas and when does that change? And it’s a complicated discussion.

And honestly, it’s quite confusing even for people who’ve done consular and immigration work for a long time. But in short, and it’s also somewhat confusing because the definition of a child changes depending on whether you’re doing citizenship-related things or visa, non-migrant, and immigrant visa-related things, but generally it’s a person under 21. Again, not for citizenship, but for most visa processes, it’s unmarried persons under 21. It can be your stepchild, your adopted child, or your natural child.

And the problem that people run into in a lot of cases is these immigration processes take so long that the status of the child can change while you’re waiting for certain dates to hit or things to become current. And then the question becomes “well, now my child is growing up or starting their own family, but we still want to immigrate together.”

When does that status change and how does it change? Because when the child is younger and unmarried, it’s quite simple, right? If they have those relationships that I talked about before and they’re under 21, then at whatever point their parent becomes the recipient of an immigrant visa process and finds a US petitioner, then they sort of get added onto those petitions and they’re able to apply for visas alongside their parents.

But yeah, it changes in a couple of different ways at different points.

So, say you entered this process and then you have a five-year wait, and in that time, your child is about to turn 22. There is something called the Child Status Protection Act, which gives them some limited protection. So, as you get closer to the end of the process, if you’re going to miss it by like six months, sometimes they’ll just stop the child’s clock at 21.

If you’ve already submitted your application, your either your actual visa application, or adjustment status, then that will help them there. And then they won’t change status and have to go into a different category that doesn’t exist for K-2s.

It is a hard-limited 21 and marriage for the children of fiancé visa recipients that does have to take place before the child is 21. And then the other thing is if that protection doesn’t exist or we exceed 21, then what happens then? And then it becomes a question of like, is the child married or unmarried?

And then there’s a category, and this is what the question referred to, the unmarried son or daughter of a US citizen. At 21, they changed from a “child” to a “son or daughter.” At that point, there are different categories for them and different wait times.

Right now, for most people in the world, the currency date for an F-1, which would be an unmarried son or daughter, is 1 December 14, which means there’s roughly an eight-year wait from the time that you file your petition to the time that adult now child, unmarried child is able to then file for their visa or file for adjustment status. That’s a long time.

If you turn 22 and your age out and then you’re in this category, you can wait another eight years before it’s your turn to go ahead and get that visa, too. And this does happen to some people. And then if you get married, then it changes again, right? And then it’s married sons or daughters of us citizens. In that case, for most countries, the currency date is 22 November 2008.

So now you’re waiting 14 years for your child to be able to come and join you and get their green card that way. So, yeah, you can see that it becomes quite a big thing for a lot of families because that will lead to quite a long separation. And especially for folks who are just in their 20s and starting to build their own family, being away from their parents for that long can be quite difficult.

There is a lot of pressure and urgency in a lot of these cases for people to get this process done in a way that their children will be able to come with them, even if their children are already over 18 and starting to kind of strike out on their own. So, yeah, I’m happy to talk about that more in the future, if there are future questions, but we’re going to go ahead and wrap up for today.

I appreciate everyone taking the time. I also want to say that if you like what you’re hearing and you want to know more, then we have a ton of great resources and content on Boundless about all these processes, so, I encourage you to look there.

Please keep talking to us about the questions that you have and we’ll keep featuring them on this event and try to answer them in a complete way as possible.

So, thank you very much. Bye.

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