August 15, 2011 marked the last day when a US citizen (“USC”) living outside the US could submit a family petition for a spouse directly at the local US embassy or consulate. The process generally worked smoothly because the USC filed the family petition directly at the US Consulate, where its officers were familiar with local documents and customs, and therefore in a good position to evaluate the veracity of the family relationship.   Did the marriage appear to be valid? Are those really their children? And so on.  Before the US Consulate officer would make the final decision on the petition, the foreign national family member, and often the USC as well.  In short, there were basically two steps in this process: 

Step 1.  USC submitted family petition on behalf of his/her family member at the Consulate;

Step 2.  A consular officer interviewed the family members and made a decision. 

The process for the most part was predictable, logical, and efficient.  Most consulates and embassies could process a family case in 3 to 6 months.  Of course, some matters would linger on and on in the system, causing frustration to both the USC and the foreign family members.  However, the process usually worked, and was generally satisfactory.  In fact, the process worked so well that some USCs who were not living overseas would try to submit petitions at the US consulates where the spouse or other family member resided, hoping to complete the process faster than the expected processing times at the United States Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) in the states.  This had caused the consulates to impose a policy that only USCs who had been living within the jurisdiction of the consulate for at least six months could submit a family petition directly at the consulate.  

However, this ended on August 15, 2011.   

After August 15, 2011, all USCs, regardless of where they live, must submit family petitions at USCIS in the U.S., unless there is a USCIS overseas office located in the country where the USC resides.  However, while the U.S. has US consulates and embassies in most foreign countries, there are only 31 USCIS overseas offices in 25 countries.  For expatriate USCs, the option of submitting a family petition directly at a local U.S. Consulate is no longer available.  Instead, the new process will go like this: 

Step 1:  Submit family petition via FedEx or similar service at USCIS “lockbox” in Chicago, which will fee-in the case and conduct an initial assessment of the completeness of the petition;

Step 2: The Chicago lockbox will forward the case to one of the four USCIS locations in the U.S.;

Step 3: If the petition is deficient in some way, USCIS will communicate with the USC petitioner living overseas to resolve the deficiency, typically by regular mail!;

Step 4:  USCIS approves the family petition and forwards the case to the National Visa Center (NVC), which will communicate with the USC and family member to complete additional forms and provide necessary documents;

Step 5:  After the NVC has completed its process, it will forward the petition and accompany documentation to the Consulate or Embassy where the family resides;

Step 6:  The Consulate or Embassy will review the petition and schedule the foreign national family member(s) for interview.  ;

Step 7:  Interviews for the family member(s) are scheduled by the consulate, which will make decision on the case.   

Anyone can see that the “new” process is going to take longer than the former process. After all, instead of two steps, there are now seven steps.                                                                                                                

USCIS explained that it believes the new process will increase efficiency and consistency of adjudication.  Of course, only the Federal government or a huge bureaucracy, can believe that increasing processing steps from two to seven, and putting as much distance as possible between the adjudicating agency and the petitioner, would result in “increased efficiency”.    We are talking about petitions filed by USCs on behalf of their foreign national spouse and other family members.  The adjudication of these petitions hinges on whether the marital relationship is truthful or not, or evidence of family relationship between parent and child, the brother and sister.  In other words, you are either the spouse of a USC or you are not.  Therefore, the standard used to determine the merit of the petition is pretty consistent.  Further, it is difficult to understand how a USCIS service center can achieve better consistency for a petition filed by a USC residing thousands of miles away.  Aren’t consulate officers in a much better position to make the evaluation on the bona fides of the marriage, given that they are “on the ground?”  Let’s not forget that the interview by consular officer is still a part of the “new” process.  We have to wonder why USCIS decided to pull the family petitions state-side and insert the agency into the process? 

Oops, I forgot to mention another important reason – money.  When the Consulates, who are a part of the Department of State (“DOS”), adjudicate a family petition, USCIS has to reimburse the DOS.  Although only about 5% of the family cases are filed by USCs living outside of the US, USCIS apparently was getting tired of “reimbursing” DOS.  It rather keep the money in the agency.  But to do that, USCIS must do “something,” and that “something” is to require USCs living overseas to file their family petitions in the US, making USCIS the “middle-man.” 

USCIS has been holding “stakeholder” calls and conferences to get feedback from the communities about its new programs.  This, of course, is commendable, and we welcome it.  However, after listening in to both stakeholder calls, I did not hear one caller agree with USCIS on this new program.  Callers simply pointed out the fallacy of USCIS’s logic and questioned why it was done.  The USCIS officers who handled the various calls kept to their script – increased efficiency!!  USCIS expects the new program will have no impact on processing times. Well, the agency must be really bad at math or is in complete denial.   

Some callers suggested that if money was the motivation, why not give the petitioner an option to pay a higher fee to offset the reimbursement that USCIS had to pay DOS, but USCIS did not have a reasonable answer, explained that exceptions could be made on a case-by-case basis to allow submission of a family petition at the US consulate.   

I just have to ask, why is USCIS “fixing” something that is not broke?  Creating exceptions, adding new steps, causing confusion, etc. are not hallmarks of consistency and efficiency, but typical of a giant bureaucracy that does not know how to stop itself from increasing complexity.   

By the way, USCIS, while mandates that those overseas petitions submitted in the US, but payment of filing fees by a check or money order must draw on a US bank account, which most USCs living overseas don’t have.   

Details are so annoying.