Visa Processing Slows Down for Workers in U.S.

By AMANDA BRONSTAD
Staff Reporter

Immigration officials and lawyers representing visa applicants say that the length of time and amount of information required to secure the most common form of work visa has increased since Sept. 11, though there is debate over the root cause.

Lawyers for the applicants point to a more thorough review of standard paperwork as a result of the nation's stepped-up security concerns, but government officials say that the holdups are more likely the result of processing delays that normally occur in September, the end of the fiscal year.

And to the extent that immigration attorneys face additional hurdles which by some accounts have more than doubled the processing time the extra scrutiny appears not to be part of a broad Immigration and Naturalization Service policy, but initiatives taken at the local level.

"I think there's higher scrutiny across the board," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. "It's not coming from any directive and not focused on business cases in particular, but in this climate there's a veil of suspicion over immigrants and immigration. Individual adjudicators are much more cautious and are requiring people to jump through more hoops."

Immigration attorneys in L.A. said they are facing more questions and are having more applications subject to second reviews or requests for additional information. Among the most frequent requests from local INS offices is greater information on the applicant's educational background.

Philip Abramowitz, a partner at Sherman Oaks-based Korenberg Abramowitz & Feldun, said that between 30 and 50 percent of his applications have been sent back for "requests for evidence" since Sept. 11. Prior to the 11th, he said, only a handful of the 20 to 25 applications he handled weekly were subject to additional review.

"I have to address what they're asking for, because many times if you don't give them what they're asking for they deny," he said. "Sometimes what they ask for isn't reasonable, but sometimes it is."

The backlog resulting from the additional requests, he said, has caused him to add two more clerks to his staff of 58.

Natural delays

While acknowledging a backlog in processing, INS spokeswoman Eyleen Schmidt said the delays are not the result of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Delays in processing H1-B visas the most common type of work visa were created when the agency froze incoming files during the last two weeks of its fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The freeze is part of an annual year-end accounting, Schmidt said.

Ronald Johnson, assistant center director for non-immigrant employment visas at the regional INS office, said the number of visas processed had declined, but he attributed the drop to general economic conditions.

The regional office handles visas processed in California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam and processed 13,000 visas during the month of November, he said, down from a peak of 17,000 in July. October numbers bottomed out at 9,000 visas, though Johnson attributed the low number to the end-of-year slowdown.

Johnson acknowledged concerns over delays and increased information requests from the INS, but said his officers aren't doing anything differently since Sept. 11.

"I've heard the staff has supposedly cracked down more, but my staff has assured me they haven't cracked down," he said. "They attribute it to as the staff gets more experienced, they are sometimes more attune to the nuances and statutes and regulations, so they are more pointed in what they ask for. But I don't know. I hear we're asking more questions, but I can't quite put my finger on it."

Where there has been an INS-mandated delay, it has been for workers from several Middle Eastern countries. The INS has not disclosed whose nationals are affected by that order. For those applicants, visa processing is automatically delayed as part of a 20-day review because of increased security measures after Sept. 11.

Also, the U.S. Department of State issued a directive Nov. 19 blocking visa holders from going to Canada or Mexico to renew their documentation.

The change means higher costs for third country nationals and a higher risk that they cannot return to the U.S. if their visa applications are not approved.

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