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U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced three major steps it will be taking to deal with the out-of-control backlog situation.
The first of these, establishment of new internal cycle time codes, relates to a change in metrics used to track processing within USCIS. While the Service indicates that with these new, faster goals it expects processing times to decrease, it isn’t immediately clear how USCIS adjudications officers will meet these goals absent allocations of overtime or the addition of new officers – or if this was pursued, where funds to support such efforts would originate.
The second, a dramatic increase in the availability of premium processing, by far holds the most promise of actually reducing processing times. Premium processing currently allows accelerated processing of certain types of nonimmigrant work visa applications made on form I-129 and certain types of immigrant petitions made on form I-140 based on payment of an additional fee – $2,500 at this point.
The program has seen occasional but temporary limitations on availability, several fee increases to the current $2,500 fee (less than half of this only a few years ago), and a reduction of the service provided (the 15-day response time was redefined to 15 business days, or effectively three weeks for a response.
The changes here expand availability, although in some cases with different fees and different waiting period for response than the original program as we know it. I-140 filings for multinational executives or managers and for those seeking a national interest waiver will now have access to the program at the $2,500 fee, but with 45-day wait times instead of 15.
Those filing I-539 Applications for Change of Status – often spouses and children of nonimmigrant work visa holders seeking extensions alongside the primary visa holder, but also those seeking to obtain or extend student, visitor, exchange visitors or trainees, will cost $1,750 for 30-day response. This is especially helpful for spouses and children of primary work visa holders, who had no wat to process at the same speed of the primary spouse once USCIS stopped adjudicating these alongside premium-processed primary cases.
Processing for I-765 Applications for Employment Authorization will also be eligible for the program on payment of a $1,500 fee for 30-day response. As standard processing times for these have been steadily increasing, this may be especially helpful.
What remains unclear is when these changes will become effective. We know that nothing will happen before May 30, 2022 and that USCIS expects to implement the changes before the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30, 2022. However, absent an announcement by USCIS, we’re still waiting.
Of course, there is an excellent argument here that nobody should have to pay extra to the processing speed USCIS should be delivering anyway – and that individuals will now need to pay to fix what is USCIS’ own problem. Many, however, will welcome any opportunity to avoid the long waits involved and attribute the extra cost simply to the cost of doing business.
We must remember as well that premium processing promises only a response by a certain date – not an approval. The response may well simply be a Request for Evidence requiring response (USCIS then has the same period again to respond after receiving a response). USCIS has always denied reflexively issuing these inquiries as a “boilerplate” document when they are getting too close to their response deadline just to move the case to the petitioner or applicant’s court and claim they met their deadline. Many attorneys and employers suspect otherwise.