On August 9, 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that over the course of the coming year it will shutter all but 7 of its 23 international offices. Offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, Nairobi, New Delhi, Guatemala City, Mexico City, and San Salvador will remain open. In March of this year, Trump administration officials had announced that the administration was planning to close all the international offices. The recently-announced decision to keep some of them open is therefore a departure from the original plan.
Housed in U.S. Embassies abroad, USCIS’ international offices comprise its International Operations Division (IOD). The IOD has a broad mission and historically the IOD has played a crucial role in (a) supporting U.S. citizens seeking to adopt abroad; (b) efficiently processing the immigrant visa petitions filed by U.S. citizens for their immediate relatives (spouse; child; parent) when the petitioner and beneficiary live abroad in the geographic jurisdiction of the IOD; (c) quickly processing travel documents for permanent residents who have lost their documents and for refugees who are being reunited with family members in the U.S; (d) efficiently processing naturalization application for members of the U.S. military stationed abroad; (e) assisting with refugee applications and considering urgent humanitarian parole requests; (f) providing technical expertise to U.S. government agencies abroad, among others.
The negative consequences of USCIS’ decision will be felt by many U.S. citizens living overseas. Americans abroad have consistently relied on USCIS field offices to submit I-130 petitions, which allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their non-citizen relatives for green cards. In fiscal year 2018 alone, almost 6,300 petitions were approved at international offices. With the closure of critical outposts in London, Seoul, and Frankfurt, processing times are expected to lengthen from one month to up to six months. In addition to helping U.S. citizens, USCIS international offices historically have interviewed and provided helpful assistance to refugees seeking to be reunited with relatives in the U.S. who have been granted asylum. Moreover, international USCIS offices have provided crucial services to military families abroad and facilitated international adoptions, as the staffers there possessed expertise beyond that of consular workers. USCIS claims that these responsibilities will be smoothly transitioned to the State Department. Whether that is the case remains to be seen. At a minimum, these office closures will require more people to file petitions and applications with already burdened USCIS offices in the U.S. and will likely result in further delays at Consulates abroad.
Closing these offices severs vital lifelines not just for Americans but for all the constituents and stakeholders abroad who have turned to USCIS international offices for assistance.