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Q&A With a Former USCIS Officer – January 12, 2022

Jan 12, 2022

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Video Transcript

Hello, everybody. Erik Finch here again from Boundless Immigration. I’m joining you today to do a live Q&A, and we have lots of questions this time, so I won’t waste a lot of time, and we will get started.

I do want to begin by just reminding everybody that I’m not lawyer. I am not a USCIS or Department of State employee, and I am simply here to talk about my experiences in the immigration system as a former USCIS adjudicator and a former Department of State consular officer, provide what insight I can, and answer questions as specifically as I can. I just want to remind everybody that what you hear on this call and during this discussion is not legal advice. And please, if you have specific questions about your own immigration status or your path to US citizenship, please consult a legal professional with those questions to get a definitive answer.

So, that being said, I’ll take the questions that we have, and I’ll try to provide whatever insight I can. So, let’s get started.

Any news on DACA? We submitted [our application], and now I’m worried that we made a mistake.

So, DACA is a tough one. And honestly, there haven’t really been any recent developments. People are allowed to submit. Currently, it’s taken quite a long time to file because a lot of people submitted earlier this year. I have heard, anecdotally, the timelines, which used to be fairly quick to get a DACA decision, have stretched out to two times or three times of what they used to be, so I’m not surprised to hear that people are waiting.

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In terms of worrying about making a mistake, you know, you submit the forms, and if you’re qualified and submit the information that you need to with the application, that tends to be a benefit that people are given, and if they’re not and they need extra things from you, USCIS will reach out. So that’s the unfortunate message that you always share when it relates to things that have to do with the immigration system: just wait. And then, at the moment that you get some kind of notification or information from them, just act as quickly as you can to get that back to them so you can start waiting again.

But ultimately, they will make a decision at some point, and if they need more from you, they’ll let you know.

Is there any movement toward going towards more digital with the immigration system, such as submitting applications online?

Short answer is yes. USCIS has made some headway.

You can submit your N-400 application for Naturalization online now. You can also submit your I-130 petition to establish your relationship with a foreign citizen beneficiary. The intention, I think, with USCIS and Department of State is that people will be able to file these things online. There’s still a lot of challenges in particular around submitting additional documents and evidence. The problem is that some parts of the process are sort of hard to say definitively, like, you must do this or you should do this. That’s why a lot of it is still done on paper via the assistance of lawyers and things like that.

But yeah, the agencies have made some headway, and they have plans in place, but it’s the US government. They’re probably, in a lot of ways, [what] we would think a modern company would be around IT. They’re quite a bit behind, and it’ll take them time, and it’ll take their contractors time to make plans and fully put this stuff into play.

The Department of State has also been struggling for many years with online passport renewals and things like that—things that feel like they would be pretty simple to do.

So, I’ll just leave it there for now and say that yes, there are plans in place to move forward [with digitizing], particularly with the adjustment of status application… but I don’t have a specific timeline for when that will take place.

How long is it taking now for a Marriage Green Card from a TN visa?

This is kind of a big question, right?

It would depend on where you’re applying from and what exactly are your marriage dates, but the simple answer is about 12 to 14 months. So, if you’re in the US with a nonimmigrant visa, and you find the love of your life and get married and then go ahead and file for adjustment of status as a spouse of a US citizen, then in most places in the country, most field offices, will take about a year [or more] to get your interview.

Unfortunately, there are areas of the country where the wait is much longer. For example, up in Seattle or in New York City, I’ve heard the wait time for an interview for a marriage-based adjustment of status application can be up to two years or longer.

So unfortunately, that backlog and the busyness of some offices, also, some of the offices in California probably, mean that you’ll be waiting a significantly longer time just because there’s a large backlog at that specific location for interviews.

If a U.S. spouse gets a semi-permanent visa to live with me while we wait on the CR-1, will that affect our application?

This question is tough to answer. I think it’s better to kind of define some terms when we talk about this.

So, you’re married and you are applying for a marriage-based immigrant visa for your beneficiary spouse who lives overseas. And the question is “can they travel to see me in the interim?” The problem becomes that one of the requirements for most nonimmigrant visas, which is what the person who asked this question is referring to when they say, semi-permanent is that nonimmigrant visas are things like tourist visas. That’s how the US government makes the assumption that these are temporary visits. Even if they last a long time, the thought is like you’ll be going back to your home country at some point versus immigrating to the US, which is what immigrant visas are for.

So, it does come up quite often where people are like, okay, we’re married. It doesn’t make sense right now for us to live together, but we want to start this process of getting the green card so the spouse can join me in the United States. But what happens after that? Because one of the requirements for a nonimmigrant visa is that you don’t have immigrant intent.

And if you filed for a CR1 immigrant visa for your spouse, that’s clearly showing you have immigrant intent. So how can you still qualify for visas that explicitly say you can’t have immigrant intent? And the short answer is for most people, you will not really be able to travel during that period because any visa waiver program, ESTA application or any B1/B2 application for a tourist visa that you make, the first question they’re going to ask is, “why are you applying for this temporary visa when you’re clearly telling us that you’re intending to immigrate to the US?”

It will be very hard to convince a consular officer or a CBP officer, that, given the opportunity, you won’t just stay in the US if you’re admitted before you get your immigrant visa.

And some people do that.

So, I guess the short answer to your question is, yeah, it won’t necessarily affect your immigrant visa application because you still have a relationship with that person, and you’re going through the proper process to obtain the immigrant visa that will let you get your green card when you enter the US, but any plans that you may have for travel in between could be affected.

Now, there are some exceptions to this, like people who have H1-B’s and L’s are usually still able to travel back and forth because you have that authorized work status in the US, and they understand that you want to continue to work while you’re adjusting or applying from overseas.

And there are other limited conditions like humanitarian parole.

If you have a US relative who falls deathly ill and you need to make an emergency visit, that can be considered by USCIS and CBP as a mitigating circumstance or something that would kind of fall under an exception.

But, for the most part, it can be difficult to travel during that processing period between the time that you file and the time that you get your actual interview overseas.

Which field office handles LIN receipts?

When you get your receipt number after you file for some kind of application or paperwork through USCIS, you will notice that it has a three-letter code followed by a number, and that three-letter code—it’s not just gibberish. It does actually tell you where your application has been.

LIN is the Nebraska Service Center.

And you can find a list of these acronyms if you go online, and it will differ depending on what form you’re filing and what part of the US you live in. These service centers, they have a sort of internal routing mechanism to send these things to certain service centers to handle that part of the workload.

And it’s not always what you think. Some stuff that you file no matter where you live, goes down to the Texas Service Center just because that’s the place where they’ve decided all of these specific forms should go.

But for things that are really common, like I-130s and I-485s, they tend to be kind of divided up amongst multiple service centers depending on where people live. So, yeah, once you get your receipt number, if you take those three letters and you put them in a search bar and put USCIS, that will tell you exactly where the service center that is processing your cases.

What that doesn’t do is tell you what field office your interview will be at. So, if you look this up and you find out like, oh, this is Nebraska Service Center. Why is it there? I’m living in Arizona. Don’t worry.

You’ll still be routed for the actual interview to a field office, which they have at least one of in every state, and where they will do the final steps to adjudicate the application if an interview is required.

So yeah, once again, to directly address that question, which field office handles LIN receipts, that’s the Nebraska Service Center.

Once I submit my application, can I still travel as a tourist to the U.S.?

I think that was kind of answered before with our question three.

You can try. You may have problems. It’s really going to be about what the CBP officer is feeling that day and whether they decide that it’s credible that you will travel and leave the US and go through the proper process.

For example, if you get to the port of entry, and the CBP officer sees that you have an immigrant visa pending and you’re traveling, perhaps you already had a tourist visa, and you just want to travel on that, that’s really going to be a decision they make that day.

And it’s a high-stakes decision, right. So, if they get you there and they talk to you and they decide, “you know what? It looks like this person is going to try to use the tourist visa to stay here, even though they don’t have the proper visa,” they can deny you entry, in which case you’re getting back on the plane and going home.

Does it happen often? No. But most people don’t want to risk it.

So, yeah, that’s why I say a lot of that type of travel revolves around emergency situations.

If the applicant’s country doesn’t hold vaccination or medical records, what is done?

That is kind of a tough question. Usually, they’ll divert you to some other place, like where that can be done, and they’ll accept those results. So, I would follow that up directly with the embassy or consulate that’s closest to you. They will give you a method to figure that out, and there will be a doctor somewhere that they’re using to get those things done for you in that place. But, yeah, everybody will need those.

So, it’ll have to get done in some form. I think sometimes people can also go to another embassy or consulate where they have those resources available and transfer their application there. But, yeah, that’ll be more specific to the US embassy or consulate that you’re working with.

In the CR-1 case, if the U.S. spouse gets a visa to the foreign country, would that affect the American legal process?

I don’t really see how that would affect anything. That’s something that the US petitioner is doing in relation to another country. So, if they want to go travel around and get visas for other countries, that’s not really going to affect their relationship with their foreign citizen beneficiary spouse or the process that the spouse.

I guess what you’re imagining is like a US citizen marries a person from Canada, but they want to go on a vacation together to Mexico. That really doesn’t affect the U.S. immigration process.

The only area where you get in trouble with travel around the immigration process is if you are adjusting status and you leave the US before you get your advanced parole permission, then you’re going to need some kind of method to get back into the U.S., and that will also cause your adjustment of status petition to be abandoned.

Is it true that the USCIS medical is now extended until September?

That is a USCS policy that I’ll defer to them on. It’s better for you to go directly to the source for that kind of question, but, yeah, they’ll publish rules around that.

Will my application get delayed due to the pandemic?

That’s a broad question. And yet I feel comfortable saying the answer is yes.

Every agency, including the Department of State and USCIS, every field office, and every consulate is facing pressures related to this pandemic in terms of staffing, in terms of resources, in terms of local regulations, about the number of people that they can deal with and have in the building when they do their processes, etc.

So, I would really say that, yes, you should expect [delays]. These processes were already long, and they’re going to get a lot longer. In some places, depending on the severity of the outbreak in that area, it could be all the way to the extent that operations are completely shut down for a certain period of time. So yes, this has been a painful process in terms of wait times all along. And due to the pandemic, it has gotten significantly worse.

And that’s why I say a lot of the time, your only real option is just to wait and see. Wait until the government contacts you and just make sure your addresses are updated and that you give [the correct] information to them so they can find you when they’re ready to reach out and take care of some step in the process. That’s really the best thing to do.

What are the processing times for K-1?

Again, that’s kind of a broad question, right. My understanding is that processing times for the I-129F form, which is the petition that begins the process to get the fiancé visa, have gone somewhat back down to pre-pandemic levels like six to eight months. But that is just the time it takes you to get to the National Visa Center, and then you’re going to be on the hook for whatever the wait time is in the local consulate or embassy where you’re doing the actual K-1 interview.

Now, the Department of State has prioritized those K-1 interviews alongside the immediate relative spouse, child and parent applications. But it’s still a factor of what’s going on locally with COVID and the general operating status of those consulates.

So, I would say, go ahead and get your paperwork in. And then, at whatever step that the National Visa Center reaches out and informs you that your case is being sent out to the consulate, I would begin paying more attention to the consulate web page about their operating status of the consulate, the place where you’re going to receive your interview, and then keep an eye on their information and web pages and send them emails. If you want updates and status reports on what’s going on with the actual time between the time when it goes to the consulate and the time when the consulate will actually schedule your interview.

How do you prepare for an adjustment status interview?

So, I did a lot of these and, you know, this is a pretty frequent question that people have. And I think a lot of the preparation is just sort of like you’re basically at the end of the process, right? You submitted all your paperwork, USCIS has looked at everything, they sent you RFEs if something was missing, and you get to the interview step.

And the interview is really just around, like, what I call verification, confirmation and explanation. So, they’re going to verify all the data and documents and things that you submitted are correct and legitimate one more time.

And these are big files, right? They’re not going to spend a huge amount of time on this, but they’re going to make sure all the forms and things are there in order.

And then they’re going to ask you a lot of questions about your eligibility. So, they’re going to get you on record for the last time talking about, like, hey, “have you ever committed a crime,” “have you ever had an immigration violation,”—anything that you haven’t disclosed or talked about up till then, they’re going to want to try to find out and update that information to make sure that there’s nothing that they’ve missed and then explanation. They’re going to give you a chance, in most cases, for most benefits that require an interview to talk either whether it be with you and your spouse or if you’re going for naturalization for you yourself and just kind of tell your story.

How did we meet? How did I get to the point where I was eligible to file this form? Why am I doing this? And what are my plans?

And they want to understand that, and they’ll take some notes. And, yeah, I think the best way to prepare is be well rested. Don’t be nervous. Just tell the truth.

Some people feel more secure and comfortable, like getting copies of all their paperwork and things so that they have that available if they have to reference it. I think in most cases, it’s recommended to get some up-to-date evidence of relationship or documents around that just so if there’s something they want to see that’s newer than what you submitted with your initial application.

I mean, keep in mind some of these applications are taking multiple years now. So, if you’ve had a child in the interim, you can bring their birth certificate to show that you’re still in a meaningful relationship, any updated tax documents, and things that have been updated significantly since you submitted your original application.

Those are all good things to have available. Yes. I mean, if you don’t think of these things and the officer asks for them, they will give you a chance via a request for evidence to submit it after the fact. But, hey, you waited this long. You want to get this thing going.

You want to avoid issues? Yes. I mean, you can do a little prep work and get some documents together to bring with you. But other than that, I just tell people get a good night’s sleep, be positive, and don’t get too concerned or anxious about it. If you get all the way to that interview step and you’re at the consulate and you’ve done what they’ve asked, you to do at every step of the way up to that point, for most people, especially when it relates to marriage based adjustment of status, it just becomes like sort of a perfunctory 20 to 30 minutes interview, and then they’ll give you a decision pretty quickly after that.

Do the documents that the National Visa Center requests depend on NVC requirements or consulate requirements? For example, once I submit a requested document, will they automatically send them to the consulate for review?

So, kind of: yes and no.

There’s a basic set of documents that the National Visa Center knows that they need to collect for everybody who’s doing any particular kind of visa. So, for a spouse, they’re going to ask for the financial documents and the 864 form. That’s where a lot of that stuff is done because it really kind of applies to every case. And they will kind of get all that stuff sorted out and get it in order and get it in the case, the digital version of the case. So that will save the effort at the US Embassy or consulate from having to do all those things a long time ago.

Yeah, that was all done at the consulate. So, yeah, they’re trying to kind of consolidate and save labor that way. But there will always be a few things that are just so very specific to each country. Certain places that have birth certificates that have weird information that the consulate will want to see a different version of or whatever. So, the consulate does also have the right to ask for whatever they want.

If you get to that step, you do all the things that the NVC requires you to do, it is possible that you’ll go to your consular interview, and the consult officer will say, “actually, I need some more things from you.”

Some of this stuff can be done before the interview. If it’s pretty common and the consulate will reach out once your interview scheduled and tell you like, “hey, you should bring these things” and then other times they’ll just be stuff that comes up during the interview that the consulate decides that they want to see.

So, like I said, kind of yes and no. Do everything that the NVC tells you. And that’s all pretty standard. But be aware that the consulate may also come at you with more specific requests and things that are tailored to the country you live in or the language or the government regulations and things that are specific to that area.

What if my U.S. citizen wife was arrested in the past? Is that going to affect my process?

So again, I don’t want to get too specific. And like, these are questions that are for your individual case. Like, it’s probably good to speak to a lawyer or a legal professional who can tell you for sure. But generally speaking, when it comes to criminal history, most of the interests the government has is about the foreign citizen, right?

Because that’s the person who’s seeking permission to come into the country. As a U.S. citizen, there are certain things you can do in the immigration process to lose the privilege of being able to petition for people and apply for them, but generally speaking, like most types of U.S. criminal history are not really going to block you from applying for an immigration benefit for your spouse or other relatives. But again, it’s definitely worth asking the question to a legal professional to get a specific and legally authoritative answer.

My fiancé lives in Jamaica. Is it less of a wait to get him to the U.S. than if I file for a K-1?

Not 100% clear what the scenario is here. If the question is, “is it faster to get married and then get an immigrant visa versus go ahead and file for a K-1 and then get married when he arrives,” that can be a little bit of a toss-up because I think usually the I-129F petition does go a little faster than an I-130 petition, but they’re prioritized about the same for consular interviews as they get to that step.

I feel like traditionally K-1s probably get in a little bit faster just because it’s a lower volume type of visa, and it gets the same degree of preference that the marriage-based ones do. But it’s going to vary a lot by country. And I think in Jamaica, a K-1 is a pretty popular visa. So, there may be a significant backlog for those as well.

And this is a tough question, right? Because nobody can really say for sure. The Department of State doesn’t really publish a lot of wait time things specific to each country. USCIS gives a very rough ballpark estimates for the time it takes to process a lot of things. And also, it varies individually by case, whatever the normal processing time is. Either of these agencies that deal with this part of it can easily make the wait time quite a bit longer if they have specific questions about a case your case. If they want additional documents and they’re sending out RFEs, I would say that it’s going to be very hard to get a definite answer to that question.

So I would just do whatever makes sense for you and your fiancé or potential spouse, and kind of figure out your process from there.

Again, a lawyer could probably provide a little color on this, especially somebody who deals with a lot of clients who are from Jamaica, like they might have a little bit better sense of this.

At Boundless, we’re also trying to take some of the data that we have around wait times and things and make that a little bit more public. So, if this is a question that interests you, please stay engaged with us, and we’ll do our best to use the data that we have to help you understand some of these questions also.

But unfortunately, for now, yeah, I couldn’t really say one way or another whether it would be significantly faster to do a marriage based immigrant visa application in Jamaica or a K-1.

When applying for the 2-year waiver for J1, if you don’t reply when they send requests for more evidence, can you apply for the waiver again?

So, the question is, for those who aren’t familiar with this, the J1 visa is like an exchange visa.

It falls under the student visa category. And a lot of these exchange programs are funded by one or the other governments of the country that’s either sending or the US country where the program is taking place. And for that reason, people who receive this funding for these exchange trips, sometimes they activate what we call like a 212B residence requirement, which means that the sending country or US or whatever combination of it, because they’re spending this money on this person who is an academic or whatever, like they say, like, hey, we don’t want to spend this money and then just have you leave our country.

So, we want you to come back and do work here and kind of share this skill that we’ve helped you get. And then after a certain period of time, then you can go immigrate somewhere else.

This is not a big deal for most people, but what happens in a lot of cases. You get a J1, you go to the U.S., you’re a research assistant, you meet the love of your life, and now you want to get married and get a green card and live with your spouse in the US. So how do you get around this two-year residence requirement so that you can stay together with the person that you married and not have to go back to somewhere? That doesn’t make sense.

So, in that case, they’ll let you apply for a waiver. It’s kind of a painful process. It takes quite a long time, and it’s very expensive. But, yeah, you’ll submit basically the reason for your request and evidence and information about your program, and then it gets passed around the Department of State and sometimes through agencies in the foreign country’s government, so that everybody just kind of decides. Do we agree with this?

And I’ve seen them get granted before. It takes a little bit of time. But yeah, once you have that waiver in hand, then you can go and start your immigration process because you’re no longer ineligible because you have that requirement waived.

So, to address this question directly. Yeah.

If you didn’t reply to a waiver, a request for information or request for evidence, this kind of goes for every part of the US immigration process. If they ask you for something and then you didn’t respond, they usually just deny it. And then basically, at that point, your only recourse is just a file again.

So, in this case, the person who asked this question, if you haven’t been notified that it was denied, it may be worth reaching out via whatever help center or things like that just to determine the status of your current application, because, yeah, it’s expensive to file again.

I think, in particular, according to the fee schedule that I’ve seen, the cost for these J1 waiver applications is going to go up about 300% this year. So, it really probably would be painful to have to start this process over and inexpensive. So, yeah, it might be worth running down and asking “what’s going on with the application” or reaching out whatever contact info you were given on the request for evidence. But, yeah, it is possible most of the time.

The outcome for any kind of denied application or immigration form is just a file again and start again from scratch.

Which visa is easier? The I-129 or I-130?

This kind of relates to that question that we had around the Jamaica fiancé versus marriage green card application.

I don’t think either one is really easier than the other. Those two are petitions generally. If you have the legal relationship, and you follow the instructions on the forms the immigration agency will approve those and get you to the next step in the process.

The I-130 generally takes a little longer and somewhere around three to four months longer to process. But of course, the benefit of the I-130 process is if your spouse is overseas, they do that process, and then they do the consular process and get their immigrant visa, they get their green card as soon as they arrive in the States, whereas people who get K1s have to then file for adjustment of status after the fiancé arrives in the States and the couple gets married.

So that does extend. Yes, you’re living together. But yeah, you’re also going through a much longer process because then you can’t even start the adjustment process until you get the K-1 and get over here.

Like everything in the immigration system, there’s tradeoffs. And you have to really make a smart decision for you and your loved ones priorities are to make a good decision.

If you’re married in the U.S., but you’re on ESTA and you start your green card application, can you stay for the period of the application, or will you have to leave when your ESTA is up?

So ESTA is the electronic submission for travel authorization.

It’s about visa waiver program, right? So, certain countries have permission for you to enter or travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa at a consulate, and then they have kind of restrictive like you can only be there for 90 days. You can’t change your status.

You make all these agreements when you agree to use the visa waiver program now. So, ESTA usually doesn’t really give people a lot of avenues to change or extend their stay in the U.S. One exception to that is marrying a US citizen.

Of course, you can file and I’ll back up and say that, generally speaking, if you are in some kind of status, when you file your immigration paperwork, meaning that you haven’t already exceeded your period of stay or things like that, then the filing of that change of status or adjustment of status form or whatever other immigrant extension application covers you until the agency makes a decision about that form.

Now, if it ends up being denied, they will send you a notification that says, okay, we said no. So, you do have to leave now. Sometimes they give you, like 30 days or something. But the difference would be if you’re already out of status. So, if you’ve already exceeded the amount of time that you were given, then in a lot of cases, they won’t accept those things and they won’t accept those forms.

And then they kind of retro date the period at which you’re out of status before the form was filed. The other complication is that marriage based green card applicants who are adjusting in the US are exempt from a lot of the rules that apply almost everywhere else in the system around, like, overstaying and falling out of status. Like, yeah, you can’t file, like, an employment based green card application. If you’re a green card holder, you can’t file for your spouse if they’re on Esther. But there’s a lot of exceptions for the marriage based green card thing for US citizen practitioners.

So, I think this is another case where you would want a little bit of legal help to understand the exact answer to this question from a legal perspective. But generally speaking, like, yes, there are people who come to the US on a vacation, like, find the love of their life, like, have a crazy two-month things shotgun wedding. And then they kind of move forward with their process. The agency will talk to you about it, and they’ll have questions about how it all happened. And you’ll want to help them understand that this wasn’t your original intent and that you didn’t deceive anybody at the consulate or CBP when you arrived in the US to begin this process and make these plans.

But if they find that that’s all-in order and that it really was the relationship developed without that intent or evolved into something different than what you originally intended, then yeah, usually people like that will be able to proceed with the immigration process. Okay, we’re a little bit over. I think I’m going to go ahead and stop there. If you like this conversation or you like the information that we were talking about, you can always find more balance has a lot of resources. We spent a lot of time creating content around these questions.

And believe me, you guys are not the first people to have these questions. I recommend you take a look at all our resources. Check out our web page. I’ll keep doing these live. Q&As if people like them, I know it feels good to get your questions answered quickly and responsively, even if again, this is not legal advice.

So please understand that what you’re hearing here may or may not be the right answer for your specific immigration journey. It is good to learn more about the process and understand the challenges that other people have.

So, thank you for participating in this discussion and looking forward to talking again. Thank you.

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