Category Archives: bona fide marriage

Reversal of INA 204(c)/Marriage Fraud Finding + Approval of I-130 and I-485 = A True Success Story

On appeal, a USCIS Field Office reconsidered and reversed its denial of our U.S. citizen client’s Form I-130 petition for her spouse under INA 204(c), which is commonly known as the marriage fraud bar. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) has authority to review such decisions, but USCIS chose to vacate the section 204(c) bar on its own and approve the petition without a BIA order. In addition, the spouse was granted a green card based on his concurrently filed Form I-485 application for permanent resident status. These favorable decisions were made within three months of our filing the Notice of Appeal and within two months of our submitting the legal memorandum to support the appeal.

Beneficiary’s File is Flagged Due to USCIS’ Denial of Prior I-130 Petition by Previous U.S. Citizen Spouse

Section 204(c) of the Immigration & Nationality Act states that no petition may be approved if the beneficiary was previously accorded, or sought to be accorded, an immediate relative or preference status as the spouse of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, through a sham marriage, i.e. a marriage determined by USCIS to have been entered into for the purpose of evading U.S. immigration laws.

In our clients’ case, the beneficiary was previously married to another U.S. citizen who filed a prior I-130 petition for him. They completed two different interviews with USCIS over a two-year period. They were separated and asked various questions about their courtship and marriage, from which USCIS listed a total of five discrepancies between their answers.

USCIS investigators also went to their shared residence when neither of them was present. The petitioner’s mother – who lived with them – was at the home when the officers arrived. She confirmed the couple resided there with her, but the officers found very few personal items belonging to the beneficiary. Through further investigations, USCIS discovered the beneficiary was the lessee of a separate apartment and determined that he lived there instead of with the petitioner.

With the help of prior counsel, the petitioner and beneficiary submitted a Response to the Notice of Intent to Deny the I-130 petition, in which they described the reasons for the discrepancies at the interview, confirmed they lived together, and explained the separate apartment under the beneficiary’s name was being subleased to another person.

Three months after receiving the Response to the NOID, USCIS denied the I-130 petition based on the discrepancies at the interviews and their investigations from which they determined the beneficiary did not live with the petitioner. The evidence filed with the Response was disregarded. The decision was not appealed because the marriage fell apart and the parties ultimately divorced.

Beneficiary Faces INA 204(c)/Marriage Fraud Bar in Subsequent I-130 Petition by Second U.S. Citizen Spouse

Following his divorce from his first U.S. citizen spouse, the beneficiary entered into marriage to another U.S. citizen, who filed an I-130 petition for him about 18 months after the prior petition was denied. After interviewing the couple, USCIS issued a Notice of Intent to Deny the petition a year later.

In the Notice of Intent to Deny, USCIS acknowledged the couple’s marriage is bona fide and cited to no discrepancies between their testimonies at the interview. The Service, however, pointed out the beneficiary is ineligible for an I-130 approval under INA 204(c), in that his prior marriage was found to be a sham.

Petitioner Receives Guidance on Responding to Notice of Intent to Deny through Consultation

The petitioner contacted our firm, Dyan Williams Law, for help just four days before the Response to Notice of Intent to Deny was due to USCIS. Due to the time constraints and pre-existing commitments, we declined to represent her in the Response, but agreed to provide her with a consultation.

To prepare for the consultation, I reviewed the Notice of Intent to Deny the petition, the earlier Response to Notice of Intent to Deny that was filed by the prior U.S. citizen spouse, and other key items. During our telephone call, I gave the petitioner a list of documents and information to gather and present in her Response. I also summarized applicable case law and essential legal arguments she should mention in her Response.

Using my recommendations, the petitioner filed a timely and persuasive Response, which included a notarized declaration from the beneficiary’s ex-spouse confirming they had a good-faith marriage.

Representation on Appeal Leads to Reversal of INA 204(c) Finding and Approval of I-130 and I-485

A week after receiving the Response to Notice of Intent to Deny, USCIS issued a decision denying the I-130 petition under INA 204(c). The Service found there was no credible evidence to substantiate the claim of a bona fide marriage between the beneficiary and his prior U.S. citizen spouse.

The petitioner contacted me soon after she received the decision. This time, I accepted her case for representation and agreed to prepare and file the appeal on her behalf.

On appeal, I argued it was not the petitioner’s burden to prove her spouse’s prior marriage was bona fide. Rather, the Service has the burden to show by “substantial and probative evidence” that the beneficiary previously attempted or conspired to enter into a sham marriage for U.S. immigration purposes. I cited to applicable law, the credible explanations for the discrepancies at the interviews, and material evidence demonstrating the beneficiary and his prior spouse lived together and shared a real marriage before it ended in divorce. I noted the Service made a reversible error by applying the harsh statute – INA 204(c) – to deny the petition.

About two months after the legal memorandum to support the appeal was submitted, the petitioner informed me that USCIS approved the I-130 petition. She and her spouse also received notice that the concurrently filed I-485 application was reopened by USCIS, on its own initiative.

A couple weeks later, the beneficiary received his 10-year green card in the mail. He is now a permanent resident of the United States who may eventually file for naturalization (citizenship). After more than seven years of seeking to obtain permanent residence – first through a failed marriage and then via his current marriage – he finally achieved true success in his immigration journey with our counsel.

Cheers,

Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900
dw@dyanwilliamslaw.com

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Avoid the NOID by Supplementing the Record and Responding to RFE

USCIS will issue a Notice of Intent to Deny a petition (e.g. Form I-130 or Form I-140) when it has derogatory information or has evidence the beneficiary is ineligible for the benefit sought. A common example is when there is insufficient evidence of a bona fide marriage between the U.S. citizen (or permanent resident) petitioner and the foreign national beneficiary seeking marriage-based permanent residence.

A NOID is one last opportunity to rebut adverse findings that support a denial of the petition. To avoid a NOID, the petitioner should proactively supplement the record and/or file a full and timely response to USCIS’ Request for Evidence (RFE), if one is issued.

In a July 13, 2018 Policy Memorandum, titled Issuance of Certain RFEs and NOIDS; Revisions to Adjudicator’s Field Manual (AFM) Chapter 10.5(a), Chapter 10.5(b), USCIS officers are given full discretion to deny applications and petitions without first issuing an RFE or a NOID, when appropriate. This includes cases when (a) there is no legal basis to receive the benefit sought and (b) the required initial evidence is not submitted with the petition or application.

RFE and NOID: Similar, But Not the Same

Request for Evidence

An RFE is issued when the officer is uncertain whether or not the request should be approved and needs more evidence to make a decision.

The Policy Memorandum states that in an RFE, USCIS should (a) identify the eligibility requirement that has not been established and why the evidence submitted was insufficient, (b) identify any missing evidence required by statute, regulation or form instruction, (c) identify examples of other evidence that may be submitted to establish eligibility; and (d) request that evidence.

The normal timeframe to submit a response to an RFE is 87 days. A follow-up RFE (or a NOID) might be in order if the response opens up a new line of inquiry or raises eligibility issues that were not considered during initial case review. USCIS may also deny the application or petition if all the requested evidence is not submitted, especially when this prevents a material line of inquiry.

Notice of Intent to Deny

A NOID is given when the officer is leaning toward a denial, but the applicant, petitioner or requestor is unaware of the negative information or its impact on eligibility for the benefit sought.

The Policy Memorandum states, “When a preliminary decision has been made to deny an application or petition and the denial is not based on lack of initial evidence or a statutory denial…the adjudicator must issue a written NOID to the applicant, petitioner, or requestor providing up to a maximum of 30 days to respond to the NOID.”

A NOID is much more serious than an RFE. Unlike an RFE that lists exactly what evidence is missing, a NOID describes derogatory information to support a denial. You have to figure out what evidence and explanations to submit to rebut all the allegations in the NOID and prevent a denial. You also have a shorter time frame (e.g. 30 days instead of 87 days) to address complicated issues.

Supplement the Record and/or File a Full and Timely RFE Response to Avoid the NOID

While the case is pending — and before a Request for Evidence or Notice of Intent to Deny is issued — it is sometimes appropriate to supplement the record with additional evidence.

In a recently approved I-130 petition and I-485 (green card) application case, I counseled my clients to submit written affidavits addressing discrepancies between their oral testimonies at the green card interview with USCIS. Among the discrepancies were very different accounts of the marriage proposal, including where, when and how it occured. In their follow-up affidavits, they provided credible explanations for the differences in their answers.

Furthermore, at the time of the interview, they were living in separate apartments due to financial reasons, cultural factors, and logistical considerations. I advised them to submit rental applications showing they were actively seeking to live together. The supplemental evidence was sent to USCIS a month after the interview.

Four months later, the couple finally moved in together after securing their own apartment. We submitted their joint lease agreement and newly filed joint tax return demonstrating the bona fide nature of their marriage.

Seven months after receiving this supplemental evidence, USCIS issued a Request for Evidence asking for more evidence of a shared life together. The RFE listed examples such as lease(s) showing the same residence, documents showing shared finances and obligations, pictures of their wedding, and sworn affidavits from others with personal knowledge of the validity of the marriage.

Within the 87-day timeframe, we provided a full response including the couple’s new joint lease agreement, shared car insurance and health insurance policies, life insurance record listing one party as the other’s primary beneficiary, letters from neighbors confirming they live together, family photographs, and affidavits from relatives describing their good-faith marriage.

A month after receiving the Response to RFE, the Service approved the I-130 petition. After the updated Form I-693 (Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record) was provided, upon request, USCIS soon approved the concurrently filed I-485 application for permanent residence.

The couple had celebrated their second wedding anniversary by the time the I-485 application was adjudicated. A 10-year green card (instead of 2-year conditional card) was issued and there will be no need to file a Form I-751 petition to remove conditions on residence.

Despite the discrepancies at the interview and their living in separate residence for several months, my clients got their case approved by proactively supplementing the record and submitting a full and timely response to the RFE. These actions were key to avoiding a Notice of Intent to Deny, which is just one step short of a denial.

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Combined Approval of Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence + Form N-400, Application for Naturalization = A True Success Story

USCIS Field Office in California

A USCIS Field Office in California approved both our client’s Form I-751 petition to remove conditions on residence and Form N-400 application for naturalization in a single naturalization interview, held in early March 2019. With the conditions on his residence now removed, he is set to attend his naturalization oath ceremony and become a U.S. citizen.

Conditional Resident Awaiting I-751 Decision May Consider Filing For Naturalization

In many cases, conditional residents are eligible to file for naturalization before the conditions on their residence are removed and they get the regular, 10-year green card. Persons who are granted marriage-based permanent residence when the marriage to the U.S. citizen petitioner is less than two years old are issued a two-year, conditional green card. To get the conditions removed and maintain lawful permanent residence, the applicant and his spouse must file a joint I-751 petition before the two-year card expires, and no earlier than 90 days before the expiration. There are only three types of waivers (exceptions) to the joint filing requirement.

Continuous residence is one eligibility requirement for naturalization. You must reside continuously in the U.S. for at least 5 years as a permanent resident at the time you file your naturalization application. An exception is if you are a qualified spouse of a U.S. citizen, in which case your continuous residence must be at least 3 years at the time you file for naturalization. Continuous residence for naturalization purposes begins on the start date of your permanent residence, even if it is conditional.

As of June 2018, USCIS began issuing Receipt Notices for I-751 petitions that automatically extend the conditional resident status for 18 months past the expiration date of the two-year card. Previously, the extension was for 12 months, after which the person would need to obtain a temporary I-551 stamp (evidence of conditional residence) at a local USCIS office. The change was made to accommodate longer processing times for I-751s and to allow conditional residents to automatically keep their lawful status and maintain work and travel authorization in the interim.

Naturalization Interview Scheduled Before Conditions Removed

Our client’s naturalization interview was scheduled before he received a decision on the Form I-751 petition. At the naturalization interview, the USCIS officer exercised his authority to approve the I-751 even though it was still sitting at a USCIS Service Center awaiting adjudication. This cleared the way for the conditional resident to become a U.S. citizen.

Filing of Form I-751 Petition

Although both the Form N-400 and Form I-751 may be pending at the same time, the I-751 must always be filed first. A conditional resident may not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until the I-751 petition is first approved.

In December 2017, we filed a timely, joint Form I-751 petition with the USCIS California Service Center in Laguna Niguel, California. To demonstrate the conditional resident entered into and continued to have a good faith marriage with his U.S. citizen spouse, we submitted affidavits describing their relationship, shared car insurance policy, joint bank account and credit card account statements, and evidence of their home ownership.

The I-751 was initially transferred from the California Service Center to another USCIS Service Center. In June 2018, we received a Transfer Notice from the Service Center in Arlington, VA stating it was transferring the I-751 back to the California Service Center to speed up processing. Then in December 2018, we received a Transfer Notice from the California Service Center stating it completed a preliminary review of the petition and was transferring the case to the National Benefits Center in Lee’s Summit, MO for adjudication.

Filing of Form N-400 Application

The I-751 had been pending with USCIS for 10 months when the naturalization application was filed. Within three months of receiving the Form N-400, our client received his naturalization interview notice. It did not instruct him to have his U.S. citizen spouse accompany him or to bring evidence of their bona fide marriage. Nonetheless, I counseled him to do so, particularly because USCIS had yet to approve the I-751 petition and lift the conditions on his residence.

Attorney Appearance at Out-of-State Naturalization Interview

With our law firm based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I flew out to California to attend the naturalization interview. My client could have retained local counsel to appear with him, but he insisted on having me there. (U.S. immigration is governed by federal laws, regulations and policies, which allow for representation at a USCIS Field Office by an out-of-state attorney.) 

The naturalization interview started off with his completing and passing the Civics Test and English Test. Then the USCIS officer went through his naturalization application, page by page. 

To prepare for the naturalization interview, my client and I had discussed potential questions about his marriage to the U.S. citizen petitioner, their relationship history, and his U.S. immigration record. Among his concerns was that he had been previously denied entry to the United States as a visitor by the U.S. Customs & Border Protection, after being employed in the country on a temporary worker visa for an extended period. I advised him on how to best respond truthfully to this issue, which did end up being raised by the USCIS officer at the interview.

Naturalization Expected

When the USCIS officer stated he would approve the N-400 application, I reminded him the I-751 petition was still pending. The officer was not aware of this because the file had not been flagged. He agreed to call in the U.S. citizen spouse, who had accompanied us to the Field Office and was seated in the waiting room.

Both the conditional resident and his spouse answered questions and presented documentary evidence on the bona fide nature of their marriage. At the end of the interview, the officer said he would also approve the I-751 petition. Even though he did not have the original I-751 filing,  and did not review the copy we had with us, he favorably adjudicated the petition based on the testimony and evidence presented.

A day after the interview, USCIS issued the Form I-797, Approval Notice for the I-751 petition. My client soon sent me an email stating, “When I checked online the status of the N-400 on USCIS website it now says they approved my application, and the next step is to wait for the Oath Ceremony invitation letter in the mail, so looking forward to this very much…Thanks again for all your help. You really made a difference in our lives.

We expect him to be scheduled for a naturalization oath ceremony and to become a U.S. citizen. This is a true success story. 

Cheers,

Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900
dw@dyanwilliamslaw.com

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Updated Notice to Appear (NTA) Guidance Requires USCIS to Initiate Removal Proceedings In More Cases

On June 28, 2018, USCIS issued updated guidance requiring its officers to initiate removal proceedings in more cases to align with President Trump’s executive order, Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.  USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna said the new policy equips USCIS officers to better support the immigration enforcement priorities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The 2018 memorandum instructs USCIS to issue a Notice to Appear in removal proceedings before an Immigration Judge to inadmissible or deportable persons in an expanded range of situations, instead of referring NTAs to the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) in limited cases.  One major change is that an NTA must be issued whenever a person’s immigration benefit request is denied and he or she is “not lawfully present” in the United States.

What is a Notice to Appear?

A Notice to Appear is a Form I-862 the DHS issues to initiate removal proceedings against a person. The NTA includes the charges against the person and alleges the immigration laws he or she violated.  Some NTAs include the date and time of the initial hearing, when you first appear before an immigration judge who decides whether you should be removed or whether you qualify for relief, including voluntary departure in lieu of a removal order.

What Was the Previous USCIS Policy on Issuing a Notice to Appear? 

The November 7, 2011 Policy Memorandum (PM), which is now superseded by the June 28, 2018 PM, provided “USCIS guidelines for referring cases and issuing Notices to Appear (NTAs) in a manner that promotes the sound use of resources of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to enhance national security, public safety, and the integrity of the immigration system. ”

The 2011 policy instructed USCIS to issue an NTA in the following situations:

  • Cases where it is required by statute or regulation, such as termination of Conditional Permanent Resident Status and denials of Form I-751, and asylum referrals.
  • Fraud or willful misrepresentation/section INA 212(a)(6)(C) cases when a Statement of Findings substantiating fraud is part of the record.
  • In naturalization (Form N-400 application) cases where the applicant is removable, including those who were inadmissible at the time of obtaining permanent residence.

The 2011 policy further directed USCIS to refer matters to ICE in the following situations:

  • Egregious Public Safety (EPS) cases “where information indicates the alien is under investigation for, has been arrested for (without disposition), or has been convicted of” certain specified aggravated felonies as defined under section 101(a)(43) of the INA; is a Human Rights Violator, is a known or suspected street gang member or is subject to Interpol  hits; or has re-entered the U.S. after removal subsequent to a felony conviction where no Form I-212, Application for Consent to Reapply for Admission, has been approved.
  • Cases where the person is inadmissible or removable due to a criminal offense falling outside of the EPS definition, after USCIS completes adjudication.

What is the Current USCIS Policy on Issuing a Notice to Appear?

The June 28, 2018 Policy Memorandum (PM) requires USCIS to issue a Notice to Appear in a broader range of cases without first consulting ICE.

Many more persons will be placed in removal proceedings as USCIS is now required to issue an NTA in the following situations:

  • If an application or petition for immigration benefits is denied and the person is not in lawful status (not lawfully present).
  • If an application or petition for immigration benefits is denied and the person is removable (i.e. subject to any removability grounds under INA 237), especially when there is evidence of fraud or misrepresentation and/or abuse of public  benefit programs.
  • Criminal cases in which the applicant is removable and has been convicted of or charged with any criminal offense, or has committed acts that are chargeable as a criminal offense, even if the criminal conduct was not the basis for the denial or is the ground of removability.
  • Naturalization cases in which the applicant is removable and USCIS denies a Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, on good moral character grounds due to a criminal offense.

USCIS will continue to apply the 2011 NTA guidance to the following:

  • Cases involving national security concerns.
  • Cases where issuing an NTA is required by statute or regulation.
  • Temporary Protected Status (TPS) cases, except where, after applying TPS regulatory provisions, a TPS denial or withdrawal results in an individual having no other lawful immigration status.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and applicants when USCIS is: (1) processing an initial or renewal DACA request or DACA-related benefit request; or (2) processing a DACA recipient for possible termination of DACA.

UPDATE: On September 27, USCIS announced it will begin implementing the new guidance on October 1 in certain cases. For instance, it may issue NTAs on denied status-impacting applications, including Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, and Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status. The June 2018 NTA Policy Memo will not be implemented with respect to employment-based petitions and humanitarian applications and petitions at this time. 

In a September 27th teleconference, USCIS also said it will not issue an NTA immediately upon denial of an immigration benefit.  Normally, it will wait for the expiration of the motion or appeal period before issuing an NTA. If an NTA is issued before a motion or appeal is filed or while it is pending, and USCIS takes favorable action on the motion or appeal, USCIS will notify ICE. Withdrawing an application does not cancel USCIS’s authority to issue an NTA. 

Potential Negative Effects of the NTA Policy Change

The new NTA guidance might discourage eligible applicants from seeking immigration benefits out of fear of getting their requests denied and being placed in removal proceedings if they are not lawfully present.  This includes persons applying for a green card (lawful permanent resident status), a change or extension of status, a waiver of inadmissibility and other immigration relief.

Departing the United States on one’s own, after being denied an immigration benefit, will bring harsh penalties when an NTA is issued and the person fails to appear for the scheduled Immigration Court hearing. An in absentia removal order is issued if there is clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence that written notice was provided and that the person is removable, but did not attend the proceeding.

At the same time, those who wait in the United States for an initial court date to appear before an immigration judge will continue to accrue unlawful presence toward the 3/10-year bar to re-entry under INA 212(a)(9)(B).  A person who accrues unlawful presence of more than 180 days but less than one year is barred from re-entering the U.S. for three years. The bar to re-entry is 10 years if the person accrues unlawful presence of more than one year prior to departure. The initiation of removal proceedings does not stop the accrual of unlawful presence.

Furthermore, the updated policy turns USCIS into another immigration enforcement component of DHS, along with ICE and the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP).  An increase in the issuance of NTAs will create additional backlog in the immigration court system and lengthen USCIS processing times.

Conclusion

Besides the new NTA policy, USCIS issued updated guidance to make it easier to deny a petition or application without first issuing a Request for Evidence or Notice of Intent to Deny. Another  USCIS policy change also subjects more nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors to accruing unlawful presence toward the 3/10-year bar, as well as the permanent bar under INA 212(a)(9)(C).

All these new policies are in line with the February 2018 change in USCIS’ mission statement, deleting sentences that refer to the United States as “a nation of immigrants” and to noncitizens who apply and pay for immigration benefits as “customers.” USCIS Director Cissna explained that this is “a reminder that we are always working for the American people.”

For more information, read our related articles:

Updated Policy Makes It Easier for USCIS to Deny Petitions and Applications Without First Issuing a Request for Evidence (RFE) or Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID)

USCIS Policy Change Makes Nonimmigrant Students and Exchange Visitors More Likely to Accrue Unlawful Presence Toward 3/10-Year Bar and Permanent Bar

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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5 Benefits of Having Immigration Counsel at Your In-Person Interview with USCIS

When you receive notice of your in-person interview with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), you might be tempted to attend it without counsel to save on legal fees.  Many applicants, however, end up spending more money down the line because they did not have a qualified attorney helping them deal with unexpected problems at the interview.

If you filed the application or petition on your own, you could tell yourself the wait is over and the interview is just a formality before USCIS grants the immigration benefit. If you had counsel helping you with the filing, you might decide her presence at the interview is excessive because your important questions have already been addressed.

But the advantages of having reputable, experienced counsel appear with you at the interview far outweigh the disadvantage of incurring legal fees for representation.

In-person interviews with USCIS are necessary to obtain most immigration benefits, including asylum, permanent residence (green card) and naturalization (U.S. citizenship). The interview usually occurs at the USCIS Field Office with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence.

As of October 2, 2017, under the Trump Administration, USCIS began to phase-in interviews for the following:

• Employment-based adjustment of status/green card applications  (Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) filed on or after March 6, 2017, in the EB-1, employment based first preference, EB-2, employment based second preference, and EB-3, employment based third preference.

• Refugee/asylee relative petitions (Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition) for beneficiaries who are in the United States and are petitioning to join a principal asylee/refugee applicant.

Previously, except in certain situations such as when a criminal record or unlawful presence existed, applicants in these categories were not scheduled to attend an in-person interview with USCIS for their applications to be adjudicated.

USCIS plans to gradually expand interviews to other immigration benefits. It notes the change is in line with Trump’s Executive Order 13780, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” and is part of the agency’s  efforts to improve the detection and prevention of fraud and enhance the integrity of the immigration system.

Here are 5 main benefits of having immigration counsel at your in-person interview with USCIS:

1. Provide protection against excessive screening or vetting

The in-person interview is a screening and vetting procedure for persons seeking immigration benefits to reside or stay long-term in the United States. While USCIS officers are trained to be professional, courteous, and respectful of your legal rights, some may turn (or may seem) hostile when there is reason to believe the applicant is committing immigration fraud, is a danger to the community, or is ineligible for or undeserving of the benefit sought.

Interviews with USCIS are not supposed to be adversarial in nature. They are meant to gather complete and accurate information (both favorable and unfavorable) to properly adjudicate the case, not to find a reason to deny the requested benefit.

Nevertheless, due to expansions in immigration enforcement priorities under the Trump Administration, there are now more reports of applicants being arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) at their interviews  with USCIS. These cases normally involve beneficiaries attending I-130 interviews who have prior or outstanding removal orders and have remained unlawfully in the country.

Prior to the interview, the attorney can review your criminal record and immigration history to evaluate the risks of interview attendance. While attorneys have no authority to stop ICE from lawfully apprehending or detaining an applicant at the USCIS interview, they may ask critical questions to verify where the applicant will be held and the next steps in the detention and removal process. Unless there is an express agreement, however, the attorney is not obligated to represent you beyond the interview with USCIS.

In less complicated cases — such as where ICE apprehension or detention is unlikely because the only violation is a visa overstay — your having counsel at the interview is still crucial. Attorney appearance encourages the USCIS officer to remain professional and courteous and stick to relevant issues.

2. Clarify unclear questions and complex issues

At the in-person interview, the USCIS officer may ask for any information related to questions on the application forms, your eligibility for the benefit sought, your marital history, your manner of entry into the U.S., your admissibility to the U.S. (such as any arrests, charges or convictions, or misrepresentations made to an immigration official), your educational background, and your past and present employment (including the documents you used to obtain a job in the United States).

When a USCIS officer asks a vague or unclear question, the attorney may request clarification to ensure the applicant understands what is being asked. If the attorney knows the answer is factually or legally incorrect, she may also ask the officer to rephrase the question or point to objective records in the file to show the applicant is mistaken.

3. Help prevent unnecessary delays and complications

USCIS stated the new interview requirement, which became effective on October 2, 2017,  will amount to approximately 17% of the agency’s total workload. Thus, longer processing times and increased delays in all adjudications , especially interview-based applications, are expected.  These days, USCIS is taking one year or more to adjudicate green card and naturalization applications, as opposed to six to nine months in the past.

At the interview, you should strive to present all the necessary information and requested documents to facilitate approval. Otherwise, it may take several weeks or months for USCIS to issue a Request for Evidence or Notice of Intent to Deny, to which you must respond within a specified time frame (e.g. 87 days and 30 days, respectively.)

Your attorney can help you figure out what you need to bring to the interview, based on the instructions in the interview notice and the unique facts of your case. The attorney is also better equipped to evaluate whether a favorable decision or adverse notice is expected, depending on what occurred at the interview, and prepare you for next steps following the interview.

4. Serve as an advocate

Unlike in court hearings before a judge, interviews with USCIS do not involve your attorney asking you direct questions to solicit testimony. The USCIS officer asks the questions and  you provide the answers.

Questions on issues that may seem inappropriate or unimportant to you might be relevant to your eligibility for the immigration benefit and be in line with USCIS policy. Having counsel at the interview helps you determine when it’s better to answer, ask for clarification, or object (for good cause).

Your attorney cannot respond to questions the USCIS officer directs to you. She also may not coach you on how to lie about facts or hide information that is requested. But she may advise you on legal issues or raise objections to inappropriate questions or, as a last resort, ask to speak with a supervisor (particularly if the interview becomes argumentative or antagonistic).

Having an attorney present at the interview helps to protect and advocate your legal rights. If USCIS instructs you to provide a sworn, written statement on controversial points, the attorney can verify that you understand what you are providing and signing.

Counsel can further help you avoid misrepresenting material facts to the USCIS officer and explain unfavorable information to defuse a difficult situation. They advise you on pitfalls and weaknesses in your case that will likely be at issue in the interview. They determine when and how to best present testimony and documentary evidence to highlight positive factors and offset negative factors in your case.

It is rare for interviews to be  video-recorded. Without counsel, it will just be the USCIS officer and you (and possibly your interpreter) in the interview room. The officer will takes notes for the file, but you typically will not have access to them unless you submit a Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Request, which normally takes several months to process. Moreover, in the FOIA response, the agency may redact, or black out, any information protected by one of the nine FOIA exemptions to prevent certain harms, such as an invasion of privacy, or harm to law enforcement investigations.

An attentive attorney at the interview will carefully observe the discussion and take informative notes on questions asked and answers given. If USCIS issues a Notice of Intent to Deny or other adverse notice based on purported discrepancies and inconsistencies at the interview, an attorney may provide a credible explanation on what was said in the interview and how it was conducted. It won’t just be your word against the allegations of the interviewing officer.

5. Add credibility to your claim

Having an attorney present does not mean you have something to hide. On the contrary, many USCIS officers prefer applicants to bring counsel to the interview for it to run more smoothly and effectively.

In addition, because attorneys have a duty of candor to the tribunal, their presence generally adds credibility to your claims.  An attorney cannot knowingly present false information or false documents or perpetuate fraudulent claims without running afoul of the professional responsibility rules.

The attorney can help prepare you for interview by describing what questions to expect and which issues are likely to arise, and how to best address them. They can further prepare and submit a legal memorandum to stave off concerns and persuade the officer to approve your case.

Conclusion: Bring Counsel to the Interview

There are many applicants who attend their interviews without counsel and get their applications or petitions approved. But these cases are usually very well-documented with positive information and no adverse factors to consider. The applicant also has to be very fortunate having a relatively short interview where no problems arose. It is hard to know how exactly your interview will go.

Many things can go wrong at the interview with USCIS, which may lead to severe consequences including denial decisions and even a Notice to Appear in removal proceedings before an Immigration Court.

For example, the USCIS officer may conduct separate interviews of the U.S. citizen (I-130 petitioner) and his foreign national spouse (I-485 applicant) and determine they entered into a sham marriage for immigration purposes. The officer may review the entire immigration history and/or criminal record of a naturalization applicant and find that he is not only ineligible for citizenship, but is subject to removal from the United States.

Even if you prepared and filed the application or petition with USCIS on your own, or with the help of an immigration consultant or online immigration service, you may have counsel enter her appearance at the interview by submitting a Form G-28, Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney, to the USCIS officer.  Once the G-28 is accepted, the appearance will be recognized until the matter is concluded (absent a withdrawal of representation).

It’s best to secure counsel for the interview at least two weeks in advance to avoid scheduling conflicts and lack of preparation.

In some cases, the interview goes so well that having counsel seems to be an added expense with no benefit. But more than likely, counsel’s presence at the interview contributes to the successful outcome, even though you might not be able to measure the effects. And when the stakes are high, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared and to err on the side of caution by having counsel at the interview.

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Photo by: johnhain