By Megan S. Turngren, RIS Attorney
An important part of the immigration process of sponsoring international religious workers to the U.S. involves a site visit from USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). This is required per the immigration regulations and is used to verify the elements of the petition filed by the sponsor (including sponsor and beneficiary information, work location, etc.). These site visits may occur with advance notice or without any notice at all. Also, a successful site visit is a prerequisite for the sponsor’s ability to file I-129 petitions for nonimmigrant religious workers via premium processing.
It is important to keep in mind the overall purpose of site visits. Broadly speaking, it is to detect and deter fraud in obtaining immigration benefits. Thus, visits are normally conducted by the Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) unit of the local USCIS field office. Practically speaking, this means that all supporting information used to obtain the underlying I-129 petition is "fair game" for scrutiny and questioning on a site visit.
Over the past few months, attorneys within the Religious Immigration Services (RIS) section of CLINIC have noticed greater scrutiny involving site visits and premium processing service (expedited processing). Two of the primary issues are detailed below:
- A site visit can be conducted either before or after an I-129 petition for a nonimmigrant religious worker is approved. A “pre-adjudication” site visit is conducted after the petition is submitted but before a decision is made on the petition. A “post-adjudication” site visit occurs after the petition has already been approved.
Recently, USCIS has started enforcing the requirement that the petitioner have a “pre-adjudication” site visit conducted before the petitioner is eligible for premium processing. This is problematic because over the past several years, USCIS has focused on “post-adjudication” site visits in lieu of “pre-adjudication” site visits. USCIS indicates that a “pre-adjudication” site visit should be conducted at a sponsor’s headquarters when the sponsor first begins submitting petitions for foreign-born religious workers. However, in practice, a site visit is not always conducted until after a petition is adjudicated.
If a religious organization has never had a “pre-adjudication” site visit but has only had a “post-adjudication” site visit, then the organization must be aware that they may not be allowed to use the premium processing service until a “pre-adjudication” site visit has been conducted. This may be the case even if “post-adjudication” site visits have been conducted and the petitioner has previously successfully filed petitions via premium processing.
If a petition for premium processing is filed and the premium processing request is rejected because the organization has not had a “pre-adjudication” site visit, it would be prudent to reach out to offices of U.S. Senators to request assistance in facilitating the site visit process. They may be able to help move the process forward. Please note that USCIS does not accept requests for a site visit to be conducted and will not act upon a request from the petitioner or attorney for a site visit. Still, we have seen positive results when a Senator’s office is requesting that the site visit be conducted.
- If the sponsor relocates to a new primary office space, then USCIS may no longer allow this sponsor to use premium processing until a NEW site visit has been conducted at the new office headquarters. Therefore, a move across town can impede the ability to request premium processing on future cases even though the sponsor may have previously had numerous site visits and numerous cases filed for premium processing. Please plan accordingly for any cases that need to be filed via premium processing when you are considering a move to a new location.
Preparing For Site Visits
Sponsors should always be prepared for an unannounced site visit. However, site visits are not exclusively physical inspections. USCIS is also conducting visits by telephone and email. Since the USCIS typically does not provide any advance notice, it is best practice to treat each day as a potential site visit day.
As mentioned, the purpose of a site visit is fraud detection. For a “pre-adjudication” site visit, the USCIS will primarily want to confirm that the petitioning religious organization is a bona-fide religious entity. During a “post-adjudication” site visit, USCIS will also want to verify that the religious worker is in fact working at the location stated on the petition and that the religious worker’s stated duties and compensation information is accurate. If an inspector notes inconsistencies between the petition and what they see on their visit, they may deny a pending petition or revoke and terminate an approved petition. Given this risk, we strongly advise our clients to expect questions about the underlying information on the I-129 petition. Of course, it is important to remember that site visits should not be "fishing expeditions". Questions should be limited to the specific foreign national and should also be confined to the legal requirements for R-1 status (and not other statuses or benefits).
We have also been made aware of instances where USCIS has hired private contractors for site visits. Because the contractors are presumably not experts at immigration law, clients should be prepared to deal with individuals with a less-than-complete understanding of the requirements of R-1 status. Despite any frustration this may cause, it is important to be professional, respectful, and compliant with the representative's requests.
Given the recent trend of site visits by phone and email, petitioners and beneficiaries should make sure they provide the most up-to-date phone number and email address when filing the I-129 petition. In addition, since phone and email site visits may require responses to requests for information and/or documents within 3-5 business days, petitioners and beneficiaries should regularly check their phone messages and emails. If the organization’s primary contact person or the beneficiary plans to be out of town, there should be a designated person to monitor calls, emails and handle physical visits in their absence. Also, as an automatic rule, you should immediately contact your attorney whenever contacted by USCIS officers.
Since post-adjudication site visits occur after an I-129 petition for a nonimmigrant religious worker is already approved, one might not immediately recognize their importance. However, it is important to remember that USCIS can revoke an approved petition. Therefore, any type of site visit can affect whether the foreign-born religious worker can work in the United States. Failure to fully appreciate the importance of a site visit can have serious consequences, not only for the foreign national but even for the sponsoring religious organization.
In order to prepare for a post-adjudication site visit, the petitioning religious organization should:
- Assign a designated person at the petitioner’s headquarters as the “go-to” person for USCIS site visits.
- nform reception staff and other personnel to direct the USCIS officer to the designated person.
- Keep copies of all I-129 petitions, any updated immigration documents (i.e., new I-94s) and current religious organization documents (i.e., recent financial records), and maintain these copies so that they are easily accessible and identifiable in the event of a site visit.
During the site visit:
- Always request the name, title, and contact information for the USCIS officer and ask for his/her business card.
- Take detailed notes of all information and documents requested by the USCIS officer.
- Whenever possible, consult your attorney before providing information and documents to the USCIS officer.
You should prepare your office and/or parish (or other beneficiary work location) for the possibility of a USCIS site visit. Please contact our office if you have any questions about this or how to best prepare.