U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) service centers are experiencing severe delays in processing immigration cases due to an overwhelming backlog. USCIS has not publicly identified the cause of the delays or offered an explanation, but the situation is causing problems for many employers.
Service Centers are experiencing the longest delays with processing H-1B petitions, with the Vermont and California service centers taking over seven months to complete processing on visa extensions. L-1 petitions filed to the Vermont Service Center are also significantly delayed. Although timely filed visa extensions may be submitted up to 6 months in advance of status expiration and in many cases would preserve work authorization for up to 240 days while the extension is pending, the delays are undermining this relief and severely affecting visa holders in a number of ways.
During the pendency of extensions, visa beneficiaries may experience issues with:
- Travel. In-country visa extension approval requires the beneficiary to stay in the United States while the petition is pending. Therefore, the delayed processing by USCIS could prevent individuals from performing work-related travel duties or visiting relatives.
- Driving. States have distinct policies on renewing drivers’ licenses and many require visa extension approvals. As a result, visa holders in a number of states will have difficulty obtaining renewed driver’s licenses. In some cases, departments of motor vehicles may require monthly renewals while an extension is pending and until the visa extension is approved.
- Spousal Work Authorization. Dependent spouses of visa holders whose work authorizations are contingent upon approval of the extension may experience gaps in work authorization while the extension is pending. This can cause frustration for families and employers alike due to the difficulty in determining when a spouse can resume work.
- Long-Term Planning. Many individuals may not be able to pursue long-term plans due to pending visa status. Before extension approval, rental agreements, big purchases, or other important life decisions could be delayed based on contract ineligibility or uncertainty pertaining to extended visa status.
What Can Be Done?
Upgrade to Premium Processing. The most reliable way for affected employers and employees to ensure faster approval of a visa extension is to upgrade the case to premium processing. Premium processing guarantees a response to a petition or request for evidence within 15 calendar days from the filing date. The government charges an additional $1,225 fee for premium processing. Premium processing is available for most nonimmigrant visa processing but is not available for E-3s. Premium processing can be paid for by a visa holder or his or her employer.
Plan Ahead. Those who do not want to bear the cost of premium processing can minimize delays by filing as soon as permitted. To ensure the cases can be filed as soon as the filing window opens, it is best to begin preparing a case several months in advance. For example, H-1B filings, for which the Labor Condition Application can be filed no more than six months prior to expiration, should be initiated approximately eight months in advance of the expiration. This ensures that the necessary documentation is available for filing on the first day available.
Consider Consular Processing. In order to avoid USCIS delays, certain visa categories (Ls, Es, and TNs) allow for renewal at the consulate. When available, this option is much faster. If the visa holder needs to travel abroad for other reasons, consular processing may be a convenient way to speed up renewal.
In light of the processing delays at USCIS, it is vital that individuals and employers take action to avoid restrictions that pending petitions can cause. When considering strategies such as premium processing and consular processing, it is important to make case-by-case determinations considering the visa holder’s and his or her family’s travel, driving, and work authorization needs. Advance planning is needed so that any gap in work authorization does not severely affect an individual’s financial stability or his or her employer’s business.