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Is your immigration case taking too long? Your congressional representative can step in

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 3 days ago By Lautaro Grinspan, The Miami Herald

A couple of months ago, a woman approached a Miami immigration law firm with a problem: her naturalization application had seemingly stalled — it was stuck in processing for nearly a decade. She had gone through her citizenship interview, but never heard back.

The staff of the nonprofit law firm, Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ), reached out to the woman’s congressional representative, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fl, for help.

“I want to say that within a couple of weeks of reaching out to [Rep. Wilson’s office], they got back in touch and let us know that a notification [to take part in a naturalization oath ceremony] was being mailed to the client,” said Adonia Simpson, the law firm’s director of family defense. “It got resolved.”

Wilson’s assistance in the case of the stalled naturalization application broadly falls under the umbrella of constituent service — that’s when Congressional members help people with thorny problems involving federal agencies, including those overseeing immigration.

When it comes to immigration, Simpson said the offices of congressional representatives can be helpful by potentially speeding up the adjudication of cases that have run into considerable delays, and by inquiring about a case’s status.

“It depends on what the issue is and what the case is but from our experience, our congressional representatives have been very responsive. That doesn’t mean we always have success; there are issues that can’t be resolved by a congressional inquiry,” said Simpson. “But if it comes to processing delays and things like that, the congressional representatives have had a lot of success for our clients.”

HELPING COUNTER GROWING DELAYS

The number of delayed applications and petitions for immigration benefits — that’s everything from green cards to immigrant work visas — is vast and expanding. During fiscal year 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the gross backlog of delayed cases at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reached nearly 5.7 million — up 69 percent from 2014 and up 29 percent from 2016.

According to a report published last year by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the cause of what it describes as “crisis-level delays” are surging USCIS case processing times, which increased 91 percent on average for all application types since fiscal year 2014. Among the most extreme delays are those for work permits and employment-based visas.

Amid increasingly drawn-out wait times, Simpson said appeals to Congressional members can be an effective, red-tape-cutting exercise.

“If there’s an issue with the adjudication, we frequently reach out to our congressional representatives to follow up on behalf of our clients and we’ve had fantastic results,” she said. “The congressional representatives have certain liaisons that they are able to speak to at immigration, and they’re really able to do the inquiries that are much more difficult for us to do now.”

Elina Magaly Santana is a Miami immigration lawyer. She said that approaching congressional representatives is a course of action she suggests only to clients mired in “particularly long delays.”

“Sometimes an internal congressional inquiry can get the ball moving faster for free, but not always,” she noted. “I do generally advise that there is no harm in trying.”

Even though congressional involvement can’t always push immigration agencies processing long-delayed applications, it can help immigrants gain clarity on their application status. That’s because, for applicants, getting status updates on their own is less straightforward than it once was.

In March, the Miami District Office of USCIS phased out the stipulation that those applying for immigration benefits had to make inquiries on the status of their case in-person. Instead, the office said people should call a a customer service 1-800 hotline (which can result in being put on hold for hours).

The policy change, according to Simpson, “has been a challenging process” that has made it more difficult for both immigration applicants and their attorneys to make status inquiries. “And that’s where the congressional representatives have really come in to help out,” she said.

VIEW FROM A CONGRESS MEMBER’S OFFICE

The office of U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fl, has three staffers — all of whom are bilingual — dedicated to handling constituent casework in the congresswoman’s district, which includes parts of Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables and Kendall.

According to Carlos Condarco, Shalala’s communications director, of the hundreds of cases that caseworkers tackled in 2019, over 80 percent of them were immigration related. In the neighboring congressional district of U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fl, that number stands somewhere between 70 and 80 percent, per a spokesperson.

“I think that all of the South Florida members would tell you something similar,” said Condarco. “There’s a huge demand for citizenship and immigration services.”

Condarco attributes that demand in part to demography — in Shalala’s district, over 70 percent of the population is Hispanic, and more than half of the population is foreign-born. But he also cites the impact of “incredible delays in the processing of critical immigration” applications.

“Basically, every single day people are coming in and seeking us and asking, ‘Why are things taking so long?’ ‘Why are things being delayed?’ And we are doing everything we can to help them,” he said.

Though Shalala’s caseworkers — or those of any other South Florida members of Congress — aren’t always able to make a difference, Condarco said more immigrants should be aware that they are a resource worth exploring.

“Broadly speaking, people don’t have enough information on the services that their representatives at every level of government can assist them with, so I don’t think we can emphasize it enough that we are here to help,” said Condarco. “It’s critical that people know more about this.”

Having congressional offices field requests for assistance from the immigrant community — made up of people who can’t yet vote — is also of service to lawmakers, some advocates say, because it keeps them informed about the problems folks are facing on-the-ground.

“I think that’s also the great thing about constituent services dealing with immigration issues, is that they are able to see some of the issues firsthand directly from their constituents,” said Simpson. “It’s a great way for congressional representatives to start identifying trends, based on actually seeing specific cases, and not just general things they may hear from the advocate community.”

HOW TO REACH OUT TO YOUR REPRESENTATIVES

Simpson’s advice is to “wait until something is clearly outside of normal processing times” — and to try to get in touch with the USCIS office reviewing your case through the hotline — before reaching out to a congressional representative.

The first step is to find out who your representative in the U.S. House is and reach out via phone or email — alternatively, you can also contact one of Florida’s two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio or Rick Scott.

You’ll be asked to fill out a privacy waiver, to give the congressional office the authority to reach out to the appropriate federal agency on your behalf. Each office has their own version of this form, but typical information asked for includes:

Immigration case number, or receipt number

Alien number (if applicable)

Full name, date of birth and address

What forms you have filed, and the dates the forms were filed

Description of the issue

Details regarding any previous attempt you may have made to resolve the issue

Though a favorable outcome isn’t guaranteed, and you may at the end of this process decide you need to hire counsel, Simpson argued congressional inquiries are a worthwhile strategy to consider.

“I definitely think this is a resource that people should be aware is available to them,” she said. “[Caseworkers] are extremely helpful and knowledgeable about the process.”

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