As you may be aware, 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.
We have recently learned that USCIS plans to expand unannounced site visits to religious organization sponsors. Thus, 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.
Preparing For Post-Adjudication Site Visits
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, as discussed below, failure to fully appreciate a site visit can have serious consequences, not only for the foreign national but even for the sponsoring religious organization.
It is important to keep in mind the overall purpose of post-adjudication 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 approval is "fair game" for scrutiny and questioning on a site visit.
Petitioners should always be prepared for an unannounced site visit. Site visits can be triggered by information in the petition, information from an outside source, or by just random selection. However, post-adjudication site visits are not exclusively physical inspections. Recently, we have confirmed with many religious organizations that the USCIS is also conducting visits by telephone and email. But regardless of the manner, one thing for sure is that site visits are on the rise. 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. Typically, the USCIS will want to confirm that the petitioning religious organization is a bona-fide religious entity, 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 revoke and terminate an approved petition. Given this risk, we strongly advise our clients to expect questions about the underlying information for their approved I-129. 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).
Recently, we've learned that the 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. As an automatic rule, you should immediately contact your attorney whenever contacted by USCIS officers. In case the petitioner or beneficiary plans to be out of town, there should be a designated person to monitor calls, emails and handle physical visits in their absence.
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.
- Inform 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 post-adjudication 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.