New USCIS Policy on FBI Name Check

USCIS and FBI have been working together in the past year to reduce the backlog of immigration-related FBI name checks. In an announcement released today, USCIS claimed the achievement of a major milestone: the backlog of FBI name checks pending six months or more has been eliminated.

It is indeed good news.

Along with the good news, however, USCIS also revised its policy since February 4, 2008, which allowed approval of I-485 cases without FBI name check clearance, as long as the cases are otherwise approvable and name check requests have been pending for 180 days.

The new policy, revealed in a memo from Donald Neufeld, Acting Associate Director of USCIS, now requires that adjudicators must contact USCIS Headquarters before approving I-485, I-601, I-687, or I-698 cases if FBI name check results have not been received. The Headquarters will then contact FBI to determine the reason for the delay, and provide guidance to field adjudicators on a case by case basis. This policy took effect on February 9, 2009.

So theoretically an I-485 case may still be approved prior to the clearance of long-pending FBI name check, but it now requires USCIS Headquarter authorization.

The reason for this policy change is that the FBI is now processing USCIS name check requests on average within 90 days. Very few take more than 180 days, according to the memo. So if a case is stuck in FBI name check for six months or more, USCIS wants to find out why before approving it. It is reasonable.

Note that FBI fingerprint check and IBIS name check still must be cleared before a case can be approved. They are different from FBI name checks, which often confuse a lot of people, including immigration attorneys.

A little background information:

Shortly after 9/11/2001, all applicants and beneficiaries must go through extensive background checks before receiving immigration benefits. One of the security checks is called FBI Name Check, which, for a variety of reasons, quickly became a bottleneck in the already heavily backlogged immigration pipeline.

How bad was the situation? As of May 2007, there were 329,160 cases pending the outcome of FBI name checks. Among them, 106,000 had been waiting for more than one year. In fact there were even cases pending for more than five years! Keep in mind that this was in addition to all the “regular” delays in a legal immigrant’s road to green card.

It got worse, and more and more people started filing law suits, called WOM, against USCIS. It was costly and time consuming to both sides.

Under tremendous pressure, USCIS made various attempts to speed up FBI name check process. One thing that apparently helped was the allocation of more funding to the program, with the overall fee increase in 2007. Then in February, 2008, USCIS adopted a policy that essentially set a cap of six months for FBI name checks. It was a huge relief for long-suffering immigrants at that time.

USCIS and the FBI together made great progress in 2008, reducing the average wait time to be about 90 days. By June 2009, they hope to be able to process 98 percent of all name checks within 30 days. Although visa retrogression still means a multi-year struggle for many legal immigrants, at least FBI name check is less of a concern now.

EAD and AP Forms Missing from USCIS Website

Two most frequently used immigration forms have been missing from the USCIS website since yesterday:

  • Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization (EAD)
  • Form I-131, Application for Travel Document (AP)

USCIS hasn’t released an official notice regarding the issue. However, since the AP form expired yesterday, February 28, 2009, it was probably a technical glitch when the form was updated in the database. The EAD form has an expiration date of September 30, 2011 though.

If you need to apply for EAD and AP in the near future, you may want to wait a few days for the two forms to emerge on the USCIS website again, hopefully next Monday. Click the above links to see if the forms show up, instead of “No content item selected .” If you need to access the forms immediately, here are the Google cached pages that still have the old EAD and AP forms before they disappeared:

  • Form I-765, Cached Page
  • Form I-131, Cached Page

Cached pages will change when search engines refresh their snapshots of websites. If USCIS hasn’t fixed the problem before then, you will lose the cached documents as well. Just in case that happens, you can download the EAD and AP forms from the links below. Keep in mind that these saved copies may become outdated, so use with caution.

USCIS to Offer I-140 Premium Processing for Certain H1B Workers

USCIS took a baby step this week to expand premium processing services to include Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker, for a limited group of H-1B workers. However, it is an important step nonetheless. Expedited processing of I-140 may become critical in some cases, including H-1B extension beyond the 6-year limit, or changing jobs before green card approval. Amid deep recession, either one is priceless.

Who are eligible?
H-1B workers, at the time of filing Form I-907, are eligible for premium processing of their I-140 petitions only if they:

  • Have reached the 6th year statutory limitation of their H-1B stay, or will reach the end of their 6th year of H-1B stay within 60 days of filing;
  • Would only be eligible for a further extension of H-1B nonimmigrant status upon approval of their Form I-140 petition under section 104(c) of AC21 (three-year extension); and
  • Are ineligible to extend their H-1B status under section 106(a) of AC21 (one-year extension).

When does the new policy take effect?
March 2, 2009.

What exactly is premium processing anyway?
Premium processing is an expedited service that USCIS offers, for a fee, which will guarantee the processing of certain immigration petitions or applications within 15 calendar days.

  • The form to request premium processing is I-907;
  • I-907 filing fee is $1000 (this is for premium processing only, and is in addition to all other filing fees);
  • The $1000 filing fee must be paid with a separate check or money order;
  • Processing a case within 15 calendar days means the USCIS may approve the case, send a Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID), or issue a Request for Evidence (RFE);
  • Either the petitioner or beneficiary (employer or employee) can pay the $1000 fee, but only the petitioner or their representative can sign and file Form I-907;
  • If USCIS requests further information on a case, the 15-day clock will restart when such information is received;
  • If USCIS fails to make a decision within 15 calendar days, they will refund the $1000 fee, but continue to leave the case in the fast-track queue;
  • Form I-907 to request premium processing may be filed together with a petition or separately when the petition has been pending, i.e., either concurrent filing or standalone is permitted.

How to request premium processing on a pending case?
To request premium processing of a pending I-140 petition, you must file Form I-907, along with the filing fee and all supporting documents to demonstrate eligibility.

Can an H-1B worker request premium processing on his or her own behalf?
Beneficiaries of I-140 petitions – H1B workers in this case – cannot sign Form I-907; only the petitioners (mostly employers), applicants, attorneys and other accredited representatives are allowed to do that. The only exception is when the beneficiary is a self-petitioner of the I-140 because a job offer is not required.

If an attorney or accredited representative files Form I-907, a Notice of Appearance (Form G-28) must accompany the request, even if the attorney or accredited representative has already filed a Form G-28 in the case.

What is section 104(c) of AC21?
Section 104(c) of AC21 allows an H-1B worker to extend his or her status beyond the 6-year limit, in three-year increments, if he or she has an approved immigrant petition (I-140) but is unable to obtain an immigrant visa number because of the per-country limits (i.e. Priority Date is not current)

What is section 106(a) of AC21?
Section 106(a) of AC21 allows an H-1B worker to extend his or her status beyond the 6-year limit, in one-year increments, when 365 days or more have passed since the filing of labor certification, or an EB immigrant petition (I-140) if LC is not required.

Will USCIS expand premium processing to other petitions?

Possibly. $1000 is a lot of money, and USCIS can always use more money. However, they have been reluctant to expand premium processing too far, as they may not be able to fulfill the 15-day commitment. There have been talks about changing the 15 calendar days to business days, which is still significantly shorter than the normal processing times for most cases, but there is no clear indication whether this will happen, or when.

Personally I’m not a fan of premium processing. If an agency can manage to accumulate a mountain of backlogs, and then offer a faster service for additional fees, it is essentially rewarding people for their inefficiency. Not to blame the slow process solely on USCIS, but where is the motivation to improve efficiency if more backlog means more income?

However, just like taking a toll road or express lane to avoid traffic, premium processing offers much needed relief in certain immigration cases, and sometimes can save a person from falling out of status. Since the backlogs will continue to exist, having premium processing available is certainly a good thing, and will be appreciated by immigrants who can take advantage of it.

Become a U.S. Citizen in Six Months

A front page story from the New York Times revealed that the U.S. military is planning to recruit nonimmigrants – people in the U.S. on temporary visas – to join the armed forces. The benefit? Become a citizen in as little as six months. Considering that it can easily take 5+ years to obtain a green card, then additional 5+ years to become a citizen, this offer sure sounds appealing to quite a few people.

Although permanent residents (green card holders) have long been eligible, this is the first time since the Vietnam War that temporary immigrants will be allowed to enlist. Some eligibility requirements for this program will include legal immigration status, security check clearance, and having lived in the U.S. for at least two years.

The Army will start the pilot program first. If successful, other branches of the military will follow suit in a year.

Stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military will begin recruiting skilled immigrants who are living in this country with temporary visas, offering them the chance to become United States citizens in as little as six months.

Stimulus, Bailout and H-1B

A bank was betting that housing price would continue to skyrocket, forever! It wasn’t the case, as it turned out, so the bank lost a lot of money. Then the government stepped up and handed them a check. What is next? Bank executives get million-dollar bonuses and H-1B workers get hammered.

The $787 billion stimulus package on its way to the White House apparently kept the restrictive H-1B amendment in. Although it no longer bars H1B hiring by banks receiving bailout money, it’s restrictive requirements will make anyone getting TARP assistance think twice before hiring a foreign worker.

Basically the provision requires any company that receives money under TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) to comply with hiring standards set for “H-1B dependent firms” – those with more than 15% of their employees on working visas. Unfortunately the TARP recipient list is huge, and growing. Here are the top ones based on the government’s transaction records:

1 Citigroup
2 Bank of America
3 A.I.G.
4 JPMorgan Chase
5 Wells Fargo
6 General Motors
7 Goldman Sachs Group
8 Morgan Stanley
9 The PNC Financial Services
10 U.S. Bancorp
11 GMAC Financial Services
12 SunTrust Banks
13 Chrysler
14 Capital One Financial
15 Regions Financial
16 Fifth Third Bancorp
17 American Express
18 BB&T
19 Bank of New York Mellon
20 KeyCorp
21 CIT Group
22 Comerica
23 State Street
24 Marshall & Ilsley
25 Northern Trust

As the package details emerge, it appears that Congress are finally getting serious about executive compensation. The new bill puts a limit on salaries AND bonuses for highest-paid employees at all financial institutions receiving government funds.

It is about time.

First-Class Mail Price Rising to 44 Cents

The U.S. Postal Service has announced that the price of a first-class stamp will increase to 44 cents, starting May 11, 2009. The new postage is for the first ounce of a First-Class mail – the most common type for mailing letters, payment checks, etc.

The forever stamps will continue to be sold at 42 cents, until the price increase occurs in May. These stamps can be used “forever,” meaning that regardless of when you purchased them, or how much you paid for them, they are always good for mailing one-ounce letters. There is currently only one type of forever stamp, introduced in 2007. See the image on the right.

Keep in mind that those Nondenominated Stamps – stamps without showing their price – are not forever stamps. They have different values and styles. For example, the popular American Flag stamp, which shows “USA First-Class” on the face but no dollar value, is actually 41-cent each. Starting May 11, you will need additional 3 cents of postage in order to use the flag stamp for a first-class mail.

A stamp with its price printed is always worth what its face value indicates, obviously.

If you are interested, you might want to check out the history of first-class stamp rates in the US. Here is a portion of it:

Effective Date(s) Rate ($) Notes
July 1, 1885 – November 1, 1917 0.02
November 2, 1917 – June 30, 1919 0.03 War Years
August 1, 1958 0.04
December 31, 1975 0.13
May 29, 1978 0.15 “A” Stamp
March 22, 1981 0.18 “B” Stamp
November 1, 1981 0.20 “C” Stamp
February 17, 1985 0.22 “D” Stamp
April 3, 1988 0.25 “E” Stamp
February 3, 1991 0.29 “F” Stamp
January 1, 1995 0.32 “G” Stamp
January 10, 1999 0.33 “H” Stamp
January 7, 2001 0.34 Nondenominated Stamps
June 30, 2002 0.37 Flag and Antique Toy Stamps
January 8, 2006 0.39 Love True Blue and Lady Liberty Flag Stamps
May 13, 2007 0.41 Introduction of Forever Stamp
May 12, 2008 0.42
May 11, 2009 0.44

IRS Recovery Rebate for 2008 Economic Stimulus Payment

Remember last year’s economic stimulus payment? The $600 per person, $300 per child, tax rebate check from the IRS? Well, if you didn’t receive the full amount in 2008, there is a good chance that you will be eligible for a recovery rebate this year. According to IRS:

People who fall into the categories described below may be eligible for the recovery rebate credit this year:

  • Individuals who did not receive an economic stimulus payment.
  • Those who received less than the maximum economic stimulus payment in 2008 — $600 per taxpayer; $1,200 if married filing jointly — because their qualifying or gross income was either too high or too low.
  • Families who gained an additional qualifying child in 2008.
  • Individuals who could be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return in 2007, but who cannot be claimed as a dependent on another return in 2008.
  • Individuals who did not have a valid Social Security number in 2007 but who did receive one in 2008.

If you use a software such as TurboTax or TaxCut to prepare your tax return, the software will calculate the recovery credit for you. If you are still filling out paper forms, you may choose to have IRS calculate the rebate instead. Or, you can use an IRS online tool (no longer available) or worksheets to figure out the amount yourself.

You will need the amount of stimulus payment you received in 2008 to calculate the recovery rebate. If you don’t remember, IRS allows you to retrieve it using another online tool (no longer available). Make sure you know the number of Exemptions claimed on your 2007 tax return before using the tool.

Windows Vista Waking Up from Sleep Mode

Recently I bought a new laptop and also upgraded my noisy workstation. They both came pre-loaded with Windows Vista (64-bit Premium and 32-bit Basic). Believe it or not, it took a bit of getting-used-to, but I actually liked the operating system!  Maybe it is because the factory-installed Vista doesn’t have many of the headaches that come with upgrading from Windows XP or 2000. Also I put 4GB of RAM in each computer and that may have helped too.

But the desktop with Vista Basic quickly started to annoy me: whenever I put it in sleep mode, it appeared to be fully awake the next time I saw it. I tried to play with the power settings but the stubborn machine always waked up from standby, and randomly. The Microsoft website didn’t offer much help, so I turned to Google. Well, apparently I’m not the only one looking for an answer.

Wake-On-LAN (WOL)

Apparently Vista is configured to enable a feature called “Wake-on-LAN.” It automatically wakes up to check network status or when there is network traffic. To disable WOL, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Start, then Control Panel;
  2. Click on Device Manager
  3. Click on the “+” sign next to the Network adapters, you should see a list of installed adapters;
  4. Right click one of them, and select Properties
  5. On the popup window, select the Power Management tab
  6. Uncheck the box next to the option “Allow this device to wake the computer”
  7. Click OK and repeat the above steps for other adapters, if any;
  8. You are done. Your computer will now have a good night’s sleep.

Note that if you prefer to use this feature, for remote access, for example, you may have to experiment with your Bios settings and jumper configuration to allow WOL and in the mean time, fix the random waking up problem.

But wait, your other devices may awake your computer at inconvenient times as well.

USB Devices

A slight move of your mouse, a tap on the keyboard, or detection of a wireless mouse’s presence could all wake up a sleeping Vista. Fortunately the fix is easy:

  1. Go to Start, Control Panel, Device Manager;
  2. Click on Keyboards or Mice and Other Pointing Devices;
  3. Right click on your device and go to Properties;
  4. Go to the Power Managerment tab;
  5. Remove the check mark next to “Allow this device to wake the computer.”

Some people may prefer to use the keyboard to wake up a PC, which is convenient too. I opt to use only the power button for standby and waking up, and instead use the soft “shut down” in the Windows start menu to turn the computer off. Works well for me.

While reading up on the internet, I found more features which may wake a computer from standby, before I noticed them:

Internet Time Synchronization

If your computer wakes up at the exact same time, check your time setting:

  1. Start, Control Panel, Date and Time;
  2. Internet Time;
  3. Change Settings;
  4. Uncheck “Synchronize with an Internet time server.”

Personally I think this can be a very useful feature, especially if correct time is important in whatever you’re doing. But for most people it probably doesn’t matter.

Disk Defragmentation Schedule

Scheduled disk defragmentation can wake up a computer in sleep mode as well. To turn it off, or change the schedule:

  1. Start;
  2. All Programs;
  3. Accessories;
  4. System Tools;
  5. Disk Defragmenter;
  6. Uncheck “Run on a schedule (recommended);”
  7. You can also leave the feature on but change it to once a month at a more convenient time.

That is about it!

Layoffs Keep Mounting

January of 2009 is brutal for working Americans. A bunch of big-name companies announced new massive layoffs. Actually some are going through maybe their Nth round of workforce reduction already. Take a look at this table below (source: MSN/WSJ):

Company Announcement date Jobs cut % of work force
Circuit City 1/16/2009 34,000 100
Caterpillar 1/26/2009 20,000 18
NEC 1/30/2009 20,000 7
Alcoa 1/6/2009 15,000 14.5
Panasonic 2/4/2009 15,000 5
Boeing 1/28/2009 10,000 6
Molex 1/26/2009 9,300 29
SAS 2/3/2009 9,000 40
Pfizer 1/26/2009 8,300 10
Sprint Nextel 1/26/2009 8,000 13
AstraZeneca 1/29/2009 7,400 11
ING 1/26/2009 7,000 5
Macy’s 2/2/2009 7,000 4
Hitachi 1/30/2009 7,000 2
Home Depot 1/26/2009 7,000 2
Starbucks 1/28/2009 6,700 4
Intel 1/21/2009 6,000 7
Philips Electronics 1/26/2009 6,000 5
PNC Financial Services 2/3/2009 5,800 10
Eaton 1/20/2009 5,200 6
Microsoft 1/22/2009 5,000 5
Eastman Kodak 1/29/2009 4,500 18
STMicroelectronics 1/28/2009 4,500 9
Hertz Global Holdings 1/16/2009 4,000 13
Motorola 1/14/2009 4,000 6

Employers rarely break up the numbers in terms of how many foreign workers will lose their jobs, but it is not surprising if a significant number of H-1B employees are affected. The trouble is, laid-off foreign workers have to deal with more issues than just financial hardship.

“For many of the employees here on a visa, being laid off means that they have to leave the country on very short notice, in many cases uprooting families and children,” – Microsoft Statement

If you are a foreign worker, it is a good idea to plan ahead and know all your options even if there is no immediate danger of being laid off. Maintaining legal status is critical in situations like this, so it helps if you are familiar with change of status (to H4, for example), AC21 (if you have a pending I-485), EAD, unemployment benefits, etc.

First Immigration Road Blog

I have been thinking about starting a blog on for quite some time now. It is trendy. It adds a personal touch. And it opens a door for our visitors to participate.

But it also means more work. More work to get the blog up and running, and even more to keep it fresh and updated.

So we were debating, and well, you know the result.

We will be talking about immigration (of course), including the road to green card that most of us traveled on, as well as visas, citizenship, news, and politics. We will also discuss stuff that puzzled us when we first landed on the U.S. soil. Schools, jobs, taxes, credit cards, shopping,  driving, and all the little things that people (especially new immigrants) might have to deal with. Since most of us are engineers and scientists, we may also write about computers and technologies every now and then. So basically, just about anything. It is a blog, after all.

You are more than welcome to comment on this page and voice your oppinions. Thanks for visiting!