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May Case Is Stuck in the USCIS Black Hole: What Can I Do?

Cases are taking longer and longer at USCIS. According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) statistics, overall average USCIS case processing times rose by 101% from 2014 to 2019. For instance, glancing at USCIS historic processing times, in 2016 immediate relative I-130 petitions took an average of 6 months, compared to 10.2 months as of August 2020. N-400s for naturalization took 5.6 months in 2016, versus 9.1 months in 2020. Work permit application I-765s went from 2.6 months in 2016 to 4.4 months now (our office has cases taking over a year). U-visa I-918s which took 22.1 months in 2016, now average over 48.3 months (USCIS’s own case processing website shows the actual time at a whopping 57 to 57.5 months!). Covid-19 slowdowns, budget restrictions, increased regulation and bureaucracy, superfluous or erroneous Requests for Evidence, extended background checks, needless second or third interviews—all of these reasons are contributing to extended USCIS processing times for virtually every type of benefit.

For non-citizens, their families and employers, these extended delays are causing serious problems. A common question we get at DFVPA is: what can we do to speed up the process? Or, my case is stuck in the USCIS Black Hole, what can I do? Fortunately, there are several tools in the chest that anyone (not just lawyers) can use to take back some control.

When we are confronted with this issue, the first step is always to check the case status. Perhaps the case has already been adjudicated? Sometimes USCIS notices don’t get delivered. USCIS has a site to check case status. Enter the receipt number located on top of your receipt notice into the box to get a general idea of the last step USCIS took in your case. Practically speaking, the USCIS Case Status Online tool can be buggy and not necessarily reflective of reality. A more accurate method of checking your case status is to create an online account with USCIS and track your case there. Understanding the case status can give an idea of what next step needs to be done. For example, if the Case Status indicates the card was delivered, it may be prudent to check with USPS. If a document was returned, you may need to update your address (TIP: if you filed multiple forms, you will need to update the address on each form). If the case status reveals a status you know not to be true, then there may be a bigger problem.

If checking the case status does not reveal the solution, the next step is to check the Case Processing Times. Again, USCIS has a website. Choose the Form that is being processed. Then choose the correct Field Office or Service Center. The Service Center can be found on your receipt notice. It may be a little difficult to find, and you need to be sure to check the most recent notice received from USCIS. Sometimes cases are transferred between different service centers. Or, some cases are processed at local Field Offices (for instance, if you had an interview). Once you have selected the processing location, click “Get Processing Times”. An estimated time range will appear. If your receipt date is within this time range, you are still within “normal” processing times.

If an urgent situation has developed, you may be able to request expedited processing. You can do this regardless of whether the case is within normal processing times. USCIS has an online guide for submitting expedite requests. Generally, USCIS only considers expediting for a very narrow range of situations:

  • Severe financial loss to a company or person, provided that the need for urgent action is not the result of the petitioner’s or applicant’s failure to:

              1. File the benefit request or the expedite request in a reasonable time frame, or

              2. Respond to any requests for additional evidence in a reasonably timely manner;

  • Urgent humanitarian reasons;
  • Compelling U.S. government interests (such as urgent cases for the Department of Defense or DHS, or other public safety or national security interests); or
  • Clear USCIS error.

Depending on the type of benefit you want expedited, you need to make sure you file the request at the appropriate location. You can do so in writing or by calling the USCIS Contact Center at 1-800-375-5283. Only the Applicant/Petitioner or their legal representative with a G-28 on file can communicate with USCIS. So, for example, only the Petitioner of an I-130 (not the Beneficiary) could expedite the I-130 with USCIS, but the Beneficiary could expedite a concurrently-filed I-485. If you call the Service Center, you will need to have your receipt number, full name, date of birth, and address ready to go. If you input the proper numbers at the prompts, you will be able to talk to a human being. Initially, you will talk to a Tier I officer. They generally can only provide basic case information. Most likely, you will need to request a Tier II officer. If you file a written expedite request, it is recommended you attach supporting documentation. Importantly, if USCIS grants your expedite request, you need to be ready immediately. For instance, they may schedule you for an interview with only 2 or 3 days notice, and your attorney may not receive notification in time. If you need to bring any documents, you’d better have them handy.

If your case is outside of normal processing times or there is some other issue, the next step is to contact USCIS. There are several methods to contact USCIS with a case inquiry. You can do so online here. You can send a written inquiry to the appropriate Service Center or Field Office. Or, you can call the USCIS Contact Center at 1-800-375-5283 (see instructions above). If calling, you will probably need to talk to a Tier II officer, who may be able to provide some more detailed information, and, if necessary, place a case inquiry. Placing a case inquiry generally gets you some sort of written response from USCIS within about your case status within 30 days. If you choose to call the hotline, we recommend calling early in the day to ensure you get a callback the same day. Depending on the issue, it may be necessary to wait a period of time and then place a second or third case inquiry.

In the past, you might have also been able to schedule an InfoPass (also called InfoMod) appointment to get some traction on your case. At an InfoPass appointment, you would personally talk to an officer at a local USCIS Field Office. In modern times, InfoPass is rarely the appropriate remedy for cases stuck in the USCIS void. Moreover, with Covid-19, USCIS tends to refuse scheduling appointments for anything other than an emergency—and the fact that your I-130 has been sitting on some bureaucrat’s desk for 3 years is not considered an emergency.

If the above does not solve the problem, you have a couple more heavy-duty options. One option is to reach out to a Congressional representative. Congressional representatives can sometimes obtain information not easily obtainable by the public. Or they may be able to use political connections or pressure to move your case forward. Unless you have some juice in Congress, you probably would contact the representative of your local jurisdiction.

Another option we do more and more often is to submit a Case Assistance request to the USCIS Ombudsman’s office. One should only reach out to the Ombudsman after attempting some of the above options, or if there is a clear error or urgent issue. You can file a Case Assistance request online at the Ombudsman’s website, or by mail using the Form DHS-7001. If filed online, the Ombudsman will normally email you within a short time. We have had some really great results with the Ombudsman.

If all of the above doesn’t work, the only real avenue left is federal litigation. For example, if USCIS has been sitting on a case well past “normal” processing times, you may be able to file a Writ of Mandamus to force USCIS to make a decision. Sometimes merely filing the lawsuit inspires USCIS to handle the issue relatively quickly. Beware: not all cases are suitable for federal litigation. If you go this route, we highly recommend hiring an experienced attorney.