On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) was abolished and transformed into three separate entities, one of which is the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS). The former INS is now part of the new Department of Homeland Security and can be found online at www.immigration.gov.
While the BCIS has moved to a different web address, the actual service locations have remained unchanged. On a fact sheet issued by the BCIS the following information is given:
• Official forms and documents issued by the former INS will still be valid and will continue to be accepted by the BCIS and other agencies as evidence of status in the United States.
• BCIS local offices are still located in existing INS locations, including Application Support Centers and Service Centers. There will be no immediate change in office locations.
• Forms should continue to be mailed to the address indicated in forms and notices. Mail addressed to the INS will continue to be processed in the same manner as it was prior to March 1st.
• The National Customer Service Call Center continues to be available at 1-800-375-5283, or for the hearing impaired, at 1-800-767-1833
• Customers are still able to download forms and check case status online (for cases pending adjudication at Service Centers).
With all these details remaining the same, what actually did change at the INS?
Linda Armstrong, an immigration attorney with Butzel Long in Detroit offers insight into the changes that have taken place:
GPWA: Linda, it seems like the INS has not changed much besides its name. On its fact sheet, however, the BCIS claims several improvements and success stories. One success, namely the reduction of their naturalization application backlog from more than 2 million in 1998 to less than 600,000 in 2002 definitely sounds impressive. Has this reorganization similarly effected the turnaround times for you and your clients?
Linda: First of all, I need to explain that things are a lot more complex than is apparent at the first glance. Many functions of the former INS are now represented at www.immigration.gov but even this website is outdated as we are speaking. The BCIS is now called the USCIS to avoid the use of the word “Bureau.” To complicate things, the USCIS is only one of three government agencies that have taken on functions of the former INS, namely the USCIS, the USCBP (US Customs and Border Protection), and the USICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
GPWA: That certainly does sound very complex. Coming back to turnaround times – what has been your personal experience?
Linda: While the reduction in the naturalization application backlog you mentioned earlier sounds impressive, I have not found a similar improvement in my day-to-day dealings with the immigration authorities. We are experiencing longer processing times and higher levels of scrutiny. Regular extensions now even include requests for evidence (of the special qualifications of the applicant) – information that was already submitted with the original application. In short – there is no such thing as a routine case any more.
GPWA: The Social Security Administration seems to be experiencing delays in the application process for new social security cards. Before they can issue a new card to a foreign worker, they have to verify his or her information with DHS online (the so-called SAFE system).
On their fact sheet for foreign workers they explain:
“Most of the time, we can verify your documents quickly with DHS online. If your documents cannot be verified online, it may take DHS several weeks or months to respond to our request. We are working closely with DHS to reduce these delays.”
(Underlining added by author, source: http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10107.html#time)
What does this mean for work visa holders who are applying for their social security card?
Linda: If the Social Security Administration does not receive document verification through the SAFE system, it can take up to 12 weeks before a social security application may even be processed. The best suggestion I can make is to wait at least a week after entering the country before applying for the social security card. It takes about 5 days before the information is entered into the system. Therefore, by waiting a few days the applicant can actually speed up the process.
GPWA: One aspect of the transformation from INS to USCIS is conflicting and outdated information made available through their website. In their “Business or Pleasure” section they refer readers to the Department of State website for more information on visa categories. On this website it is still stated that a “person who has received a visa as the spouse or child of a temporary worker may not accept employment in the United States.” (source: http://travel.state.gov/visa;tempwkr.html).
However, this seems to be contradictory to the changes made in 2002 when L and E visa dependents received the option of applying for a work permit by filing form I-765. Did the USCIS withdraw this possibility?
Linda: Fortunately this is not the case. The spouses of L and E visa holders are still allowed to accept employment in the U.S. They have to apply by using form I-765. The application fee is $120 and it takes about 60-90 days for the applicant to receive a work permit.
GPWA: By incorporating the former INS into the Department of Homeland Security, the administration has made a strong statement, indicating that the war against terror starts at the borders of this country. According to the German newspaper “Der Koelner Stadtanzeiger” (5.21.03 “Washington verschaerft Kontrollen” – quoting Asa Hutchinson of the DHS) the U.S. will implement a new control system as of January 1, 2004 (the so-called “U.S. Visitor & Immigration Status Indication Technology system” or U.S. VISIT), which will require travelers without visa waiver status to be photographed and fingerprinted when leaving and entering the U.S. There was even mention of face and eye recognition systems to be added at a later point in time. What do you know about these initiatives?
Linda: I know that something like this is in the planning stages but I don’t have concrete details yet. I have heard, however, that the embassy in Frankfurt, Germany, just started fingerprinting visa applicants.
GPWA: What are other changes that foreigners living in the United States should be aware of?
Linda: The changes that I see mainly affect the visa application process. One example is the fact that the annual cap of H1B visas has just been reduced from 195,000 to only 65,000. It has definitely become more difficult to apply for a work visa to the United States. In general, security is higher, scrutiny is tighter, processing times are longer and many things that used to be routine are not routine any more.
GPWA: Thank you so much for your invaluable insight! You can reach Linda Armstrong at Butzel Long at Armstrong@butzel.com and the author at Manuela@friendly-faces.com
The contents of this article reflect information available on or before October 20, 2003 and neither the GPWA, Butzel Long, Friendly Faces L.L.C. or any of their representatives warrant the accuracy or completeness of the information given.