Options for US Citizen Expats to Speed Up Spouse-Based Immigrant Visa Processing

Options for US Citizen Expats to Speed Up Spouse-Based Immigrant Visa Processing

The US Citizenship & Immigration Services or “USCIS” is the US agency under the US Department of Homeland Security responsible for reviewing and issuing US visa applications and petitions. The USCIS is traditionally a US-based agency with some international offices providing services and benefits from those locations. The US embassies and consulates are operated by US Department of State and therefore they are funded by the US Department of State but the USCIS international offices and staff would operate within the embassy at great expense to the USCIS. Although, it may have been more efficient to operate these offices given the international aspect of its services and the help it would give to speeding up the review of family-based immigrant petitions for US citizens living outside the US. In the spring of 2020, the USCIS closed or is in the process of closing the majority of its International Field Offices. The only USCIS offices that will remain open are in Beijing and Guangzhou, China; Nairobi, Kenya; and New Delhi, India; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Mexico City, Mexico; and San Salvador, El Salvador and those that will remain open will not be accepting I-130 Petition for Alien Relative filings.

These closures are an effort to allow USCIS to more efficiently allocate its resources, particularly in dealing with backlog reduction. While this has been the case in the runup to the closures, it is particularly important considering the recent news that the USCIS is now struggling financially due to the lower number of visa petition and application filings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that none of the USCIS International Field Offices accept I-130 petitions for spouses of US citizens living outside the US, a request to have a US embassy or consulate review the I-130 petition directly may be made if the US citizen’s situation falls under certain exceptional circumstances listed below. The alternative is that a US citizen would need to file the I-130 petition with the USCIS in the US and the processing times are currently 5-12 months. To file an I-130 Petition directly with the US Department of State at a US embassy or consulate, the US citizen family member must meet the following conditions:

  • The petitioner must be a U.S. Citizen
  • who is petitioning for their spouse, unmarried child under the age of 21, or a parent but only if the US citizen is age 21 or over;
  • is physically present abroad where the US embassy or consulate they wish to file with is located;
  • and can establish exceptional circumstances (see more below); OR
  • is an active member of the US military permanently stationed at a military base, US military members who are stationed in other posts such as US embassies or consulates, international organizations, civilian institutions, or who are abroad on temporary orders do not qualify for the military exception.

Establishing Exceptional Circumstances

If you face one of the below situations you may qualify for filing an I-130 Petition under exceptional circumstances:

  • Military Emergencies – a service member who does not fall into the military exception becomes aware of a transfer or new deployment with short notice
  • Medical Emergencies – a petitioner or beneficiary is facing an urgent medical emergency that requires immediate travel
  • Threats to personal safety – a petitioner or beneficiary is facing an imminent threat to personal safety, for example being forced to flee their country of residence due to civil strife or a natural disaster
  • Close to aging out: A US citizen’s child who is applying for a visa is within a few months of turning 21 years old.
  • Petitioner has recently naturalized: A petitioner and beneficiary have traveled for the visa interview, but the petitioner has recently become a US Citizen and the beneficiary requires a new petition based on the petitioner’s citizenship
  • Adoption of a child: A US citizen has adopted a child abroad and has an imminent need to depart the country
  • Short notice of position relocation: A US citizen, living and working abroad, received a job offer in or reassignment to the United States with little notice for the required start date.
  • Other: The Consular Section may exercise its discretion to accept local Form I-130 filings for other emergency or exceptional circumstances.

If you are a US Citizen living abroad and you cannot file directly with the US Department of State under the above exceptions, you must file your Form I-130 online on the USCIS website or file a paper Form I-130 through the mail with a USCIS Lockbox. To speed up the process, the USCIS has guidelines to consider on a case-by-case basis whether they will expedite the processing of a petition or application, including I-130 Petitions including:

  • 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.

Requesting that the I-130 petition be reviewed by the US embassy or consulate or requesting USCIS expedited processing speeds up the first step of the immigrant visa process only. Once the I-130 petition is approved, then the visa applicant may move on to the second stage of the process which is applying for the immigrant visa.

If you would like to speak to a lawyer about whether you may qualify to file Form I-130 with a US embassy or consulate under exceptional circumstances and to discuss the immigrant visa process for a family member of a please contact our office via email at info@flynnhodkinson.com.