Due to the backlog in applications, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it will temporarily suspend the biometrics (commonly known as “fingerprinting”) requirement for certain applicants filing Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status.
Timeframe for Biometrics Suspension
The suspension goes into effect on May 17, 2021 and is expected to be in place for 24 months until May 17, 2023. This suspension can be revoked or extended at anytime by the USCIS director.
What Applicants Are Impacted?
The suspension will apply only to I-539 applicants who are requesting an extension of stay in or change of status to H-4, L-2, and E nonimmigrant status.
In addition, the temporary suspension will apply to pending and new applications in the following manner:
- Existing applications must be pending as of May 17, 2021, and the applicant has not received a biometric services appointment notice.
- New applications must be postmarked or submitted electronically on or after May 17, 2021.
This does not necessarily mean that if you meet the above requirements that you will not be scheduled for an Application Support Center (ASC) appointment to submit biometrics. USCIS retains discretion to process applications and can require biometrics submission from any I-539 applicant on a case-by-case basis, even if they meet the above “suspended biometrics” requirements.
If you’ve already received an appointment notice for biometrics, you should still attend that appointment.
Biometric Fees and Temporary Suspension
Starting on May 17, 2021, the effective date of this temporary suspension, applicants who meet the above criteria do not need to submit the biometric fee ($85) when filing Form I-539. You still need to submit the base filing fee ($370). USCIS will return a biometric fee that has already been paid if submitted separately from the base application fee.
USCIS will also allow a short grace period of 10 days during which it will not reject Form I-539 if it is filed with the biometric fee. For any applications postmarked on or after May 27, 2021 USCIS will reject the application if it is submitted with the biometrics fee included in a single payment along with the base filing fee. If an application is rejected on the grounds that the biometric fee was included in the same payment with the base filing fee, then you’ll need to file Form I-539 again without the biometric fee included.
Why Is the Biometric Requirement Being Suspended?
It helps to know a bit of history behind the biometric requirement. In March 2019 USCIS began requiring certain I-539 applicants and co-applicants to attend an in-person appointment to submit their biometrics, including fingerprints, photos, and signatures.
One year later, in March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person services were suspended. This resulted in a backlog of a large number of applications which were unable to be processed due to the inability of applicants to submit their biometrics.
The large number of pending I-539 cases has negatively impacted the ability of USCIS to process the related employment authorization applications (Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization) for H-4 nonimmigrants (spouses and children of H-1B nonimmigrants), L-2 nonimmigrants (spouses and children of L-1 nonimmigrants), and certain E nonimmigrants (dependents of E-1, E-2 and E-3 principal nonimmigrants).
In addition to the impact of the global pandemic, in mid-2020 USCIS also had another wrinkle in its processing of applications: a printing issue. After bringing the printing of green cards and EADs in-house, USCIS could not keep up and developed a backlog of around 75,000 EAD cards.
According to JD Supra, “It was taking so long to get H-4 and L-2 EADs approved that individuals were losing their jobs and their benefits while waiting for the cards – even if they applied the full six months before their cards expired.”
This is because unlike some EADs which are eligible for automatic renewal, H-4, L-2, and E nonimmigrants are unfortunately not eligible for this automatic EAD renewal. USCIS states in its own alert that “Form I-765 cannot be approved until after the dependent spouse’s underlying H-4, L-2, or E nonimmigrant status is granted or extended upon approval of Form I-539.”
Due to the interconnected nature of these applications, the suspension of the biometric requirement is aimed at working through the backlog of cases more quickly and giving relief to applicants who have been waiting for a decision.
What Else Can Be Done?
On March 22, 2021 in response to this extreme processing delay, 28 companies wrote a joint letter to USCIS addressing this very issue. Specifically, they asked USCIS to consider the following three agency actions:
- “USCIS should rescind the 2019 policy of requiring new biometrics collection from every EAD applicant.” The joint letter justifies this proposed action with the argument that “the 2019 biometrics policy is redundant in most cases, as the vast majority of dependent EAD applicants have already provided biometrics as part of either the consular visa application process or incident to a prior U.S. benefit request.”
- “USCIS should announce automatic work authorization to give USCIS more time to process EAD renewal requests, restoring the employment stability and continuity of EAD applicants.”
- “USCIS has the authority to announce on its website an early filing option for EAD renewals beyond the current limitation on filing 180 days prior to EAD expiration.”
Seems like USCIS has decided to at least put in place a temporary version of the first proposed agency action to ease the current backlog of unprocessed cases.
Waiting for an immigration case to be adjudicated is a stressful process, as many times, people put their lives on hold while they wait for a decision that can impact the rest of their lives. But you do not have to navigate this process alone.
Sam Shihab & Associates Can Help
If you are an immigrant with any questions or concerns regarding your immigration case, H-1B visas, green card applications, or any other legal matter, speak at once to an experienced Columbus immigration attorney. A good immigration lawyer can help you and your family with any immigration issues you face and defend you if you’re accused of violating immigration law.
Our immigration attorneys will review your forms and applications for thoroughness and accuracy. Immigration laws will continually change, but an experienced immigration attorney will always be able to give you the most up-to-date immigration advice you need.
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