I mostly focus on technical posts but usually when I write I try to write about things I personally struggled to find on the web so that perhaps my own post may help others looking for information in the future.
This will be about the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (formerly I.N.S.). Plus I feel like immigration is a topic that affects people in technology a decent amount so I guess this should be relevant. Take this article as a list of resources that can help you getting processed by USCIS within your lifetime.
I’ve dealt with the US immigration and USCIS for over a decade and learned a lot over time. Some of my learnings I really wish I had learned earlier. For those who are citizens: a USCIS office is very much like the DMV with numbered waiting coupons except they have leather chairs. The reality with USCIS though is that if you fall through the cracks and don’t complain hard enough, you can wait decades for something that should take a few months.
Please note I’m not a lawyer and I can’t give legal advice. This post is not legal advice, don’t take it as such and if anything I say sounds like advice it really isn’t. You should always consult with a licensed immigration attorney who can review your case and give you advice specific to your unique situation.
As laws change and USCIS changes its services I may not be able to update this article timely and it may fall out of date and contain inaccurate information.
My Application Is Taking Too Long
USCIS used to be great with processing times but nowadays it is rare they process cases within the time ranges they advertise. So what can you do if USCIS told you “it will be X days” but you’ve waited more than X days?
Check Your Case Status Online
This may sound obvious but definitely check your case status online at www.uscis.gov. They have a fancy new website that allows you to sign up for text message and email notifications. You’ll very often get updates long before you get anything in the mail.
Give USCIS a call! I won’t list their phone number here in case it changes (I don’t want to risk listing outdated numbers here) but you can find their phone number on their Contact Us page. Wait times are very reasonable and all you need is your receipt number handy. So the automated system will read you the same info you can see on the website. If you want to talk to someone make sure you choose the right menu option that allows you to talk to an agent. Nowadays you’ll talk to a phone support person who works in a call center and who will not be able to do anything about your case. However they should be able to see the history for your case and see if any agent within USCIS has worked on it and tell you.
Escalate Your Call
So I recently found out that phone support agents at USCIS can escalate your call to an immigration agent. If you have done many phone calls, case inquiries and more and indicate that on the phone, they’ll automatically escalate you to someone who can actually help you.
File A Case Inquiry
If your case is “outside normal processing time” you can submit a case inquiry. This can be done by filling a form online here or by calling USCIS. This will only work if your case is actually outside normal processing time, which is a different time range for every type of form. A case inquiry essentially pings USCIS and the agent working on your case and they have legal requirement to give you an update within 15 days. This also acts as a reminder to your case agent to wrap up your case.
Not Processed By USCIS? Ask NVC
If you are being processed for a green card not by USCIS but by the National Visa Center (NVC) then you want to use the Ask NVC! form to email them. This is typically for applicants who are outside the United States and don’t currently have any kind of US visa. You may also call the NVC, see their contact page.
No Response On A Case Inquiry?
Sometimes USCIS will take more than 15 days to get back to you on your case inquiry. You should contact the service center that has jurisdiction on your case and they have a requirement to give you an update within 21 days.
In that case you should email DHS:
- California Service Center: email@example.com
- Vermont Service Center: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Nebraska Service Center: email@example.com
- Texas Service Center: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are a refugee or seeking asylum:
- Refugees: ASYLUM.TSC@uscis.dhs.gov
Immigrants Adjusting Their Status / National Benefits Center
If you are being processed by the USCIS National Benefits Center as part of an adjustment of status for a greencard (your receipt number likely starts with letters
- National Benefits Center: MSC.AILALiaison@uscis.dhs.gov
No Response On A Case Inquiry Complaint?
If you don’t get a response to your case inquiry complaint within 21 days from your service center then it’s time to escalate and email the USCIS HQ Office of Service Center Operations at SCOPSSCATA@dhs.gov and they guarantee a response within 10 days.
Visit USCIS / InfoPass
You can visit a USCIS field office and talk to an immigration agent face-to-face. You’ll have to do an “InfoPass” and that can be done via the InfoPass website.
Pro-Tip: How To Book It
You’ll quickly notice there are no appointments available for the next 2 weeks no matter where you live because demand is super high. Pro Tip: USCIS releases new appointment dates on Monday mornings so check at that time. You may also be able to get a same-day appointment by checking before 7am local time because that’s when they re-open slots due to last minute cancellations. I learned this trick from an immigration lawyer.
Your Appointment Receipt
Do no bother walking in without an appointment, they won’t let you in without an appointment receipt. If you forget the appointment receipt you won’t be able to get in either. It is possible to make an appointment from a kiosk on-site and take advantage of last minute cancellations but your odds are very low and it is not worth your travel time unless you live really close to the USCIS field office. However the on-site kiosk is your only option if you do not have a computer and access to a printer.
What To Expect
Immigration agents at USCIS field offices sometimes have the power to make decisions on certain types of cases (or get someone who can). Their power has diminished over time and they used to be able to do more than they can today. The big advantage of talking to an agent is that they have full access to any notes any other agent left on your case. They have much more access than phone support agents. They are also able to make a phone call to your processing center and very often can talk to the agent working on your case.
You will know when someone last worked on your case, what’s happening next and a lot more that simply isn’t reflected in any notes. Also you may get valuable advice from the agent. I’ve gotten great advice many times by talking to immigration agents at USCIS. Just smile, be polite, address the agent respectfully and they’ll help you. They’re not border agents they’re here to help and if they feel your pain they’ll do something. A few times I was able to get my cases expedited, which means the agent working on my case would move my file to the top of his pile.
Write A Letter To USCIS
If you pull out your application receipt, usually a
Form I-797, Notice of Action you will find at the bottom left a box that displays a mailing address for the office processing your case. For some reason I had never noticed this before and never really knew what to do with it. An immigration agent told me during an InfoPass that I can write a letter and send it to that address. I won’t post the address here because there are many addresses and you need to mail the correct one, ie. the one processing your case – so check your receipt!
It may take a little time for someone to get back to you by mail but someone will for sure. I advise being brief and concise. Make it clear what you want from USCIS, use bullet points to organize it and attach all and any evidence to prove things you say in your letter. Did you mention you did 3 InfoPasses? attach copies of your appointments. Did you lose a job opportunity from not having a work permit? attach a job offer letter. The way it works: if you have no proof it didn’t happen and it doesn’t matter if USCIS has a record of it on their side because they’re not gonna do you a favor and do the work of looking it up.
So what should you write? Ask for that work permit, ask for proof that it’s approved, ask for a status, explain and prove what you’re losing from not having your case approved quickly…
Contact Your Local Congressman
This is advice I obtained from an immigration agent when visiting a field office: “Contact your local congressman” for a case I waited over a year for (which usually processes in a couple months). What’s a “congressman” in this context? it’s your state’s Governor and your state Senators. They’re all very busy and my success rate getting help was 30% (ie. I contacted 3 before I was able to get help). Find their website and contact their office explaining your issue briefly, explain all the steps you’ve taken (case inquiries, InfoPasses…) and that it hasn’t worked out and you’d like their help.
Before emailing a congressman’s office, do read this about the proper way to address and write to a congressman.
Typically someone who works in their office or a their secretary will get in touch with you and collect your info. Then they’ll use their magic red phone to call your service center directly and get real time status updates for you.
A helpful website for finding your local representatives is GovTrack.
File A Complaint With The DHS Ombudsman
If you’ve done all the above and had no success in getting your case processed you should complain to the Ombudsman. Doing so will not have a negative impact on your case. However note the Ombudsman cannot make a decision on your case (see Wikipedia). The job of the Ombudsman is to review complaints and the Ombudsman’s office can force USCIS to process you. The Ombudsman will review your case within 30 days and boasts a 90% case resolution within 90 days.
Be prepared to provide a full paper trail with a complete timeline of everything you’ve tried and everything that has happened since you filed your application.
You may contact the DHS Ombudsman only after 60 days have passed beyond normal USCIS processing times for your specific form. The Ombudsman office triages complaints and the most severe come first. So if you’ve waited a long time and waiting further puts you at great risk of financial loss or loss of other benefits they could process you in as little as a few days.
If All Else Fails: Sue The USCIS
Yes you can sue the USCIS and you should if the Ombudsman can’t help you. I’m not knowledgeable on the process, I just know it’s possible, expensive and takes no less than 120 days. It is a resource that should be used. See Quora: Can I sue the USCIS…?
Everything You Do Goes On Record
Note that all the actions you take whether it’s making a call or doing an InfoPass go on your activity record. Unless you do something awful and illegal like threaten an agent, it’s a good thing. The more you inquire the more likely USCIS is to process you timely (heard this from a lawyer).
While USCIS keeps a record of your activity, it is your duty to keep records of everything for your personal use. Every time you interact with USCIS or the DHS Ombudsman you should provide proof of all your complaining.
References & Links
- USCIS Case Status
- USCIS Contact Us
- USCIS Contact Center
- USCIS Case Inquiry
- USCIS InfoPass
- USCIS GENERAL CASE INQUIRIES, IRC Immigration Conference, 2013
- American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and National Benefits Center (NBC) Meeting, 2014
- How to Address a Congressman/Congresswoman
- CIS Ombudsman
- NVC Contact Page
- NVC Contact Form
- Wikipedia: DHS Ombudsman