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USCIS “Secure Mail” Requirement Could Hurt Immigrants

Jan 15, 2020

A woman signs to receive her green card from a mail delivery person.

Amidst the controversy surrounding the planned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) fee hikes, a troubling regulatory tweak went all but unnoticed. As part of a rule implementing the fee increases, USCIS unveiled plans to require immigrants to show ID and personally sign for delivery of green cards, work permits, and other key immigration documents sent through the mail.

That might not sound like a big deal, but it could have serious consequences. According to a public comment posted by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the policy “will result in many applicants failing to timely receive their secure documents from USCIS because of their inability to be physically present at the exact date and time the document is delivered.”

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How will the new “secure mail” initiative work?

When USCIS begins using the U.S. Postal Service’s Signature Confirmation Restricted Delivery (SCRD) system, postal workers will be forced to return mailings as undeliverable if immigrants can’t personally show approved ID and sign for their documents. In practice, many low-income immigrants with inflexible jobs, or refugees and asylees who lack valid U.S. identification or foreign passports, could find it extremely difficult to take delivery of their own immigration documents.

That’s worrying because under a policy introduced in 2018, the government automatically destroys green cards and other documents returned as undeliverable if they aren’t claimed within 60 days. If that happens, immigrants could face months of additional delay while new documents are produced — and in the meantime, immigrants waiting for work permits could potentially lose both their employment authorization and their jobs.

What if you can’t physically be present to accept your documents?

It will be possible for immigrants to designate someone else to receive their mail, or to arrange to pick up their documents from a USPS facility, but AILA warns that many applicants won’t know how to use those options.

Even applicants who arrange for documents to be sent to their lawyers will face significant challenges: under the new rules, USPS will only make deliveries if the applicant’s lawyer is physically present. If a lawyer is called into court or otherwise unavailable, USPS won’t be allowed to leave documents with their receptionist, or even with another lawyer in their practice, and will have to return them to USCIS as undeliverable.

Why is USCIS adding this new requirement now?

This isn’t the first time that USCIS has used SCRD: the agency’s “Secure Mail initiative” was first introduced in 2018, but only for documents that had already been sent using conventional mail and returned as undeliverable. USCIS has offered no clear rationale for expanding its use of SCRD, and in fact the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General recently advised USCIS to consider using the much less restrictive Signature Confirmation system instead.

USCIS estimates that expanding SCRD to cover all green cards, work permits, and certificates of naturalization or citizenship will cost taxpayers around $26.9 million this year. That price-tag could climb further, since the proposed rule grants USCIS the power to adopt SCRD for other immigration documents in future simply by updating immigration form instructions, potentially without prior notification to immigrants or their lawyers.

USCIS officials are now reviewing almost 30,000 public comments — including one from Boundless — received in connection with its planned fee hikes. There’s still a chance that some of the proposals will be softened before the rule takes effect, so stay tuned. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on any new developments that could impact your immigration journey.

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