If you are having problems with your immigration case, a member of the U.S. Congress may be willing to inquire with a Federal immigration agency, such as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S. Department of State (DOS) on your behalf.
Members of Congress are responsive to their constituents, on whom they rely for votes. As such, they have staff who focus on helping their constituents solve problems with federal agencies.
Federal agencies also tend to be responsive to members of Congress because agencies are funded by Congress and subject to their oversight.
USCIS has an Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs with some 120 staff located across USCIS domestic offices responding to over 200,000 congressional inquiries per year. And DOS has set up a Congressional Liaison office, for this purpose. DOS has instructed staff that “replies to [congressional] inquiries should be courteous and friendly, and the content as fully responsive to the inquirer as possible under the law and regulations.”
In short, agencies may prioritize prompt and full replies to congressional inquiries over replies to individual inquiries.
Generally, before approaching a member of Congress for assistance, you should try to resolve the matter yourself through the channels which the agency makes available.
Typical circumstances where a Congressional inquiry could be effective include but are not limited to circumstances where:
- Your case is taking longer than USCIS’ published processing times or DOS common processing times.
- An Embassy or Consulate has failed to answer your questions about the legal or factual basis for a visa refusal.
- An agency has made a clear error of law in your case.
Note that the congressional office will not provide you with legal advice.
Also, beware that USCIS or DOS will not expedite a case solely on the basis of a congressional inquiry. Where expedited processing is requested, the subject of the request needs to show that the expedite criteria have been met. (USCIS criteria are here; DOS criteria for each consular post are usually on their website).
And remember that a congressional inquiry is only one potential strategy. Other strategies to consider separately or at the same time as a congressional inquiry may include, for example, escalating your inquiry to management within the agency, filing an inquiry through an American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) liaison with the agency, contacting the USCIS Ombudsman, or filing a lawsuit where the agency is acting in disregard of the law or failing to act where required by the law. Talk with your immigration lawyer about what’s the best strategy for you.
Identifying the Right Member of Congress
You need to seek assistance from one of the members of Congress who represents you–either of the state’s Senators or the member from the House of Representative where you reside.
To find your Senators, choose your state on the Senate’s contact page.
To find your Representative, go to the House home page, click “Find Your Representative,” and enter your zip code.
In almost all cases, you should contact the office of only one member of Congress. Asking multiple offices to help you further burdens the agencies they’re contacting and doesn’t improve your chances of getting help.
To choose which member to approach, consider factors such as:
- Positions on immigration. Take a look at votesmart.org.
- How experienced their staff is. Some may be new, and some may have extensive experience, perhaps even in the kind of problem you are encountering.
- Backlog. Ask whether you will need to wait before they can help you.
Click on the legislator’s webpage and look for the “Services” (or “Help Center”) tab. Under “Services,” look for the option on “Help with a Federal Agency” (or something along these lines). You can also search “Help with Federal Agency” in the legislator’s webpage search bar.
The Privacy Act requires USCIS or DOS to have signed consent from any U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is the subject of an inquiry. In practice, the member’s website will likely have a privacy form to be signed by the subject, regardless of immigration status. The website may also have a form for you to fill out describe what kind of help you are seeking. Typical information to provide includes:
- Type of case: passport application, visa application and type, or USCIS form number, etc.
- Location of case: which USCIS office or DOS office or consular post is reviewing your case.
- Full name, date of birth, and passport number of the person needing a consular service.
- Case number or receipt number.
- Description of the issue.
- Any prior attempts to resolve the issue, the agency’s response, and why you were not satisfied.
- Attach key documents, such as USCIS receipt notices, visa refusals, or prior inquiries with the agency’s unsatisfactory responses.
You also have the option to call the member’s office. Usually, staff that help with constituent services are located in the member’s district rather than in their Washington office. Tell them you have an immigration-related problem and that you live in their district. Ask whom to speak with in the office about your problem.
The staff should call USCIS or the DOS if dialogue is required, or if an emergency exists that requires immediate attention. Otherwise, staff will typically email the agency.
For emailed congressional inquiries, USCIS policy is to send at least an initial response within 5 days of receipt and a meaningful response within 30 days of receipt. For phone inquiries, an initial response should be provided by the close of the next business day.
If you are represented by an attorney, don’t leave them in the dark. Discuss any planned congressional inquiry with the attorney so you can coordinate the strategy.
In cases with complicated facts or legal issues, the attorney can be helpful in crafting the language that the congressional inquiry puts to the agency.