Consular Processing, Consular Delays, New Priority System and Expedited Processing
What is Consular Processing?
Consular Processing refers to the process of applying for an immigrant visa (lawful permanent residence, commonly referred to as a green card) from outside of the United States either through a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Unlike adjustment of status, which takes place within the United States and is handled by USCIS, consular processing generally occurs outside of the U.S. and is handled by the Department of State (DOS).
When is Consular Processing Required?
Consular processing is available for those who qualify for lawful permanent residence, either through marriage, employment, etc.) and who have already filed the relevant underlying petitions (Form I-130, Form I-140, etc.) As noted above, consular processing is required to obtain lawful permanent residence when the applicant is located outside of the United States. However, if a non-citizen is currently within the United States and entered unlawfully (without inspection), they will be required to depart the United States in order to consular process as an unlawful entry precludes the use of adjustment of status. This departure may trigger unlawful presence bars from the United States for a period of three or ten years so it is critical to speak with an immigration attorney prior to departing, as you may qualify for a waiver.
How Long Does Consular Processing Take?
The processing time for green card consular processing can vary depending upon several factors and there is no one size fits all answer. The relevant visa category, the country of origin, the workload and staffing at the consular office in charge of your case, and whether a waiver of inadmissibility is required all can contribute to delays in processing your case. On top of these general factors, exceptional factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic can also cause delays in the processing of a case.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State temporarily suspended routine immigrant visas and non-immigrant visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates. As expected, this worldwide shutdown resulted in the creation of a large backlog of immigrant visa and non-immigrant visa cases. While Embassies and Consulates have been entering a limited resumption of visa services based on local conditions, the backlog continues to grow as embassies and consulates have focused on providing emergency and mission critical visa services while as well as limited routine visa services. This has resulted in individuals whose cases are documentarily qualified and ready for interview to essentially be stuck in limbo while they await consular operations to return to normal in their countries.
New Immigrant Visa Prioritization Initiative
In order to combat the large backlog of cases the Department of State has accumulated due to consular shutdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, DOS has implemented a new priority system to be used by embassies and consulates.
DOS notes that while consular sections, where possible, are scheduling some appointments within all four priority tiers every month, the following list is the priority order in which immigrant visa cases will be handled:
Tier One: Immediate relative intercountry adoption visas, age-out cases (cases where the applicant will soon no longer qualify due to their age), certain Special Immigrant Visas (SQ and SI for Afghan and Iraqi nationals working with the U.S. government), and emergency cases as determined on a case-by-case basis.
Tier Two: Immediate relative visas; fiancé(e) visas; and returning resident visas
Tier Three: Family preference immigrant visas and SE Special Immigrant Visas for certain employees of the U.S. government abroad
Tier Four: All other immigrant visas, including employment preference and diversity visa
Now, the implementation of this priority system does not mean that routine services have resumed worldwide. On the contrary, the Department of State is closely monitoring local conditions in each country where we they have a U.S. presence and those local conditions, including medical infrastructure, COVID-19 cases, emergency response capabilities, and host/local government restrictions affect when an embassy or consulate may resume routine services.
As hinted in the visa prioritization initiation, expedited processing is still available for immigrant visa applicants who qualify despite heavy backlogs and reduced staff and processing at embassies and consulates worldwide.
Expedite requests are examined on a case-by-case basis but must generally show that a “life or death medical emergency exists.” Additional bases for an expedite request can include significant financial hardship or extreme hardship to the applicant or petitioner.
How Our Immigration Attorneys Can Help
Determining whether consular processing is an ideal avenue for lawful permanent residence can be difficult. Like any other aspect of immigration law, it’s not a good idea to attempt anything alone. An experienced immigration attorney can save you both time and money by helping you prepare all relevant documents as well as help you handle any unexpected situations.
Our law firm has an excellent track record when it comes to cases involving consular processing and adjustment of status. Contact The Law Office of George K. Gomez, P.A. to receive a free consultation and learn more about our firm’s offerings.