Immigration applications and interviews are stressful! As an immigration lawyer and an immigrant, I know the anxiety and pressure firsthand. Collecting information for an application is time consuming; enduring delayed visa applications can be frustrating; and being refused admission at a port of entry or being denied a visa can be disastrous. Most of these can be minimized and some avoided altogether with some advance planning. Here we try to identify some essential things foreign nationals can do to remain in valid immigration status and avoid problems.
1. Keep Copies of All Immigration Documents Ever Received
Foreign nationals should ensure they have a good organizational system so that each visa application or document is labelled and they are all easily accessible. The following are the types of documents foreign nationals should consider keeping:
- All approval notices from the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS);
- Receipt notices for USCIS applications and petitions;
- Copies of immigration applications and petitions filed by the foreign national or employer;
- Copies of other communications to and from the US government regarding case filings, status, and decisions;
- Written and email communications with employers relevant to maintenance of immigration status;
- Communications from attorneys providing immigration representation and advice;
- Most recent I-94 showing most recent entry to the US, obtainable at i94.cbp.dhs.gov;
- Forms I-20, IAP-66, DS-2019, if applicable;
- Pay stubs and W-2s from current and prior US employers;
- Proof of filing AR-11 address-change notification, if applicable;
- Experience letters from prior (US and overseas) employers confirming dates of work and the nature of the work;
- Transcripts from all schools, colleges, or universities attended;
- Copies of all employment authorization cards ever issued;
- Marriage certificate/s and divorce decree/s;
- Long form birth certificates for the foreign national and all family members or alternative proof of birth and parentage; and
- All documents and dispositions related to any immigration problems or arrests.
If foreign nationals keep track of all these documents, those filing a change and/or extension of nonimmigrant status, an adjustment of status (Green Card application), or a naturalization application will find it a breeze (at least in terms of document collection)! These days having easy access to their immigration history is also important when foreign nationals have visa applications at US Embassies and Consulates.
2. Check Documents Received From USCIS, US Embassies/Consulates, And Customs & Border Protection (CBP)
When foreign nationals are issued a visa or admitted to the US, it is important they check their paperwork very carefully to ensure that all the information is correct. This is important to ensure that their immigration record is correct. Upon receipt of an approval notice (I-797), a visa stamp, or upon being admitted to the US it is important to check:
- Name is spelled correctly;
- Employer information is spelled correctly;
- Date of birth is correct;
- Change of status was granted if it was requested (I-797 only);
- Correct visa classification is listed;
- Correct validity dates are listed;
- Correct photograph is shown (visa stamps only); and
- Correct passport number is listed (visa stamp only);
Once foreign nationals are admitted to the US in any classification, it is important to print their I-94 at i94.cbp.dhs.gov to ensure that all the above items are correct. Most important on the I-94 is to check the correct classification and validity of stay. For many reasons, CBP officers may admit foreign nationals for less time than their visa validity (and sometimes for more time than their visa validity). If foreign nationals stay past their period of authorized stay, they could be barred from coming back to the US so it is always best to double check.
3. Make Appointments At The US Embassy/Consulate Early
Foreign nationals who need to get a visa stamp at the US Embassy/Consulate should plan on making their appointment early. US Embassies and Consulates tend to book up early especially during holiday seasons and to avoid any delays in their visa processing foreign nationals must plan ahead. US Embassies and Consulates in Canada can book up months in advance while in London and Frankfurt they become busy at the holidays.
In addition, foreign nationals must plan at least ten days for visa processing. While it can move faster, and in certain instances take even longer, in most cases allowing about ten days for visa processing is safest. Many years ago, it used to be possible to get visas processed in one day in emergency cases but this is no longer possible. Failing to plan ahead, especially with respect to visa stamping, can result in foreign nationals being stuck or delayed abroad.
4. Renew Visa Petitions Early And Renew Passports Early
Similarly, making plans to have the visa petition renewed early is a good idea. O-1s can be renewed up to one year in advance. H-1Bs and L-1s can be renewed up to six months in advance. Starting the renewal early doesn’t mean you lose the time left on your existing visa petition. The validity of the extension petition can start after the current validity ends. If a petition for extension is started late, there may be an interruption in a foreign national’s ability to work or the foreign national may get stuck outside the US until the petition is approved. While USCIS can premium process the application if the sponsor is delayed in filing, it does add to the stress levels to leave things to the last minute.
5. File Form AR-11 After Moving
In order to ensure that USCIS has the correct information on file, foreign nationals should ensure they file Form AR-11 when they move. This is important to ensure that foreign nationals continue to receive all communications from USCIS including any work cards and, of course, the all-important Green Card. While it is true that USCIS doesn’t always manage to update its systems in advance of the mailing of important documents, filing the AR-11 and notifying their lawyer at the same time gives foreign nationals the best chance of receiving correspondence.
6. Know That Immigration Status Does Not Exist In A Vacuum
Immigration and applications for immigration benefits do not exist in a vacuum. Immigration applications are impacted by family law issues, by criminal law issues, by tax considerations and similarly those areas are impacted by immigration considerations. For example, following the Padilla v. Commonwealth of Kentucky decision, the Supreme Court required criminal attorneys to advise their clients of the immigration consequences of their guilty pleas.
Matrimonial attorneys should be aware of the obligations a sponsoring spouse makes when filing the Form I-864, Affidavit of Support. Under this immigration form, US petitioners are required to support their foreign national spouse, potentially forever. Potential Green Card applicants and citizen applicants must comprehend and plan for the tax consequences of their new status. Failing to do so could result in costly tax bills. Most commonly, any arrest, even for DUI, can negatively affect and even lead to a denial of visa applications. For all these reasons, foreign nationals must be cognizant of the interconnectivity of the different areas of law and together with their lawyer analyze their cases to ensure they address any detrimental issues.
7. Apply For An Immigrant Visa (Green Card) In A Timely Manner
The application for an immigrant visa can take many years for some and rarely less than a year at the very least. In many cases, merely starting the application for the immigrant visa does not provide a foreign national any work authorization or protection of status. Therefore, foreign nationals must ensure their nonimmigrant visas do not expire; however, many nonimmigrant visas have limited validity periods, e.g., H-1Bs can have a maximum of six years with certain exceptions, or L-1Bs can have a maximum of five years with certain exceptions. With some planning, foreign nationals can begin their Green Card application in enough time to ensure the process is completed before they run out of nonimmigrant visa status.
8. Keep Track of Travel After Green Card Is Approved
If foreign nationals wish to pursue citizenship (naturalization) they should ensure that they keep track of every trip they take outside the US once they become legal permanent residents. They should also ensure they spend at least six months a year in the US, which is their legal permanent residence. Of course, there are always circumstances that cause foreign nationals to have to leave the US for extended periods of time (work assignments abroad, family emergencies, enrolling in foreign universities). If foreign nationals find that they will be called abroad for an extended period, with a little planning they can take steps to preserve their Green Card so that it is not abandoned while they are abroad.
9. Read Communications And Review Documents From Attorney Carefully
Attorneys make mistakes (I know, shocking) despite their best efforts. Foreign nationals should check all papers sent to them and forms prepared for them by their lawyers. Attorneys also provide a great deal of information to clients in the form of written instruction or responses to questions. Foreign nationals should read and understand all communications sent to them. If they don’t understand, they should ask questions.
10. Communicate With Lawyer Or Representative
Hand-in-hand with reviewing and checking documents, perhaps the most important thing is for foreign nationals to communicate with their lawyers or representatives. They should be sure to reveal all aspects of their immigration history and be truthful in all communications. For example, foreign nationals should review their international travel plans with their lawyer before they leave the US and understand how that impacts their case; foreign nationals should disclose all criminal issues in order to ensure they can prepare for any impact on their immigration application; and, most importantly, if foreign nationals plan to leave a job, they should inform their lawyer before their last day of employment so any new visa filings can be started in time to prevent them from falling out of status or working without authorization.
While last minute emergencies do occur especially in the immigration context, following these tips can help minimize stress and avoid some common problems that many foreign nationals face. And in the event all goes wrong, call an experienced immigration lawyer. We’ve seen it all.