USCIS currently has more than 20 international field offices, including two in China, at Guangzhou and Beijing. These offices currently handle work such as:
- Forms I-130, Petitions for Alien Relatives, by U.S. citizens on behalf of their spouses, children, and parents
- Forms I-131A, Applications for Travel Documents (Carrier Documentation), by permanent residents whose green card has been stolen, lost, or destroyed.
- Fingerprint collection for naturalization applicants under section 319(b) of the Act, namely, such as spouses of U.S. citizen employees working abroad for American companies or the federal Government.
- Military citizenship applications
- Refugee processing
- Looking for fraud in visa applications and providing technical immigration advice to other U.S. government officials.
The closures are justified by USCIS as a cost-cutting measure and will happen sometime over the next year. In the meantime, all new staff deployments to international offices have been cancelled.
Work previously handled by international field offices would be shifted to U.S.-based USCIS offices and to State Department personnel at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. Still, it’s not clear which responsibilities would be taken on by the State Department, which says that the two agencies have not yet reached an agreement on such responsibilities.
From a customer’s perspective, USCIS international offices have performed well in comparison with U.S.-based offices. The average processing time for all USCIS cases surged by 46 percent over the past two fiscal years and 91 percent since 2014, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), which sees such delays as an intentional policy to slow U.S. immigration. International offices have not seen such delays.
It’s beyond my paygrade to know whether resources are better spent on adjudicators at domestic or international offices. But I can confidently predict that this is bad news for U.S. citizens residing abroad and their families, and not just because they will face increased processing times. Where the State Department will take over responsibilities for USCIS, State Department employees won’t do the job as well as USCIS staff. I have a high regard for the professionalism of foreign services officers. But these tasks are peripheral, not central, to State’s mission. Already, State employees are performing some of these duties in regions of the world where there is no USCIS international field office, and sometimes these tasks are given short shrift. For example:
- U.S. Embassies and Consulates may not explain clearly to the public the requirements and procedures for filing Forms I-130. A typical example is the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia, which states that they will accept a Form I-130 in “exceptional circumstances,” but doesn’t explain what those circumstances are, how to file, or even which types of petitioners can file on behalf of which types of beneficiaries.
- The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual gives inaccurate instructions to officers about fingerprint collection for naturalization applicants. For instance, they say that they will collect fingerprints in 319(b) cases, only “where compelling extenuating circumstances exist.” In actuality, USCIS imposes no such requirement: 319(b) applicants residing abroad may freely decide whether to be fingerprinted abroad or to return to the U.S. for this purpose.
It’s a shame to see USCIS international offices will get the axe. For U.S. expats, it may be to your advantage to file now with an international office before the date (not yet announced) when they stop accepting filings.