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'Your status depends on the mail': how delays in the US Postal Service decide the fate of immigrants

Elections are not the only threat from delays in the postal service. The entire immigration system is highly dependent on her work, writes Documented NY.

Photo: Shutterstock

The U.S. Postal Service is gearing up for a stream of mailed ballots for the 2020 elections. And this is against the background of the difficulties of the agency itself due to budget cuts and increased delays in service. But it isn't just elections that can disrupt service delays: the entire immigration system, which relies heavily on postal courier services, is at stake.

According to the New Yorker, the USPS handles nearly half of the world's mail (142 billion items) each year. The agency employs nearly 25% of the federal workforce - it delivers paperwork, notices, visas, work permits, naturalization papers and more to the 47 million immigrants living in the United States.

On August 19, 2020, Dominic Corso, president of the local union of 443 American postal workers (located in Youngstown, Ohio), said that recent changes to the postal service have caused irreversible damage.

“A day or two is enough, and hundreds of thousands of letters will be delayed. We are at a point where 150 letters a day are delayed, ”Corso said.

Speaking at the American Federation of Government Officials (AFGE) union, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Kenneth Palinkas explained how the USPS and the work of USCIS are inextricably linked.

“The collapse of the postal service will be a disaster, our work and the USPS go hand in hand,” said Palinkas. “At some point, around 2012, we were considering placing USCIS offices in post offices ... It would be like a general store, you didn't even have to send documents by mail: just come to the post office and they are ready to help” ...

Palinkas has been with USCIS since its founding in 2003. He has witnessed many changes in the agency's leadership, budget, and initiatives, including Transformation, a 2006 program dedicated to digitizing USCIS 'methods for processing immigration forms and documents. It is estimated that nearly $ 4 billion has been spent on this initiative, which Palinkas said "has not yielded the expected results to date."

In 2015, The Washington Post reported that the initial budget for the program was $ 0,5 billion, and the process should have been completed by 2013. Five years later, only 10 out of nearly 100 forms can be completed online.

In 2003, at the USCIS center in Laguna Nigel, California, a manager overloaded with immigration documents destroyed 90 documents, including “American and foreign passports, asylum applications, birth certificates and other documents supporting citizenship applications, visas and permits to work".

On the subject: Millions of Americans could lose their vote in elections due to mail delays

Most recently, USPS employee Diana Molyneux in Salt Lake City, Utah was arrested for delaying and destroying thousands of immigration-related mail since 2017. The Nevada Independent reported that by the time the Inspector General's investigation was completed, applicants had spent thousands of dollars re-applying, many lost their jobs while waiting, and DACA applicants were unable to reapply.

New York City Immigration Attorney Nina Dutta says 90% of immigration applications are processed by mail. Even those that can be completed online often need to be supplemented with mailed documents.

Datta received incorrect and conflicting information about which forms can and cannot be processed online from the USCIS representatives who answered the agency's hotline 1-800, which is especially worrying, because this is the first point of contact for many people.

Immigration Attorney Matthew Hoppok expressed his displeasure with the inaccessible and complex system. The Hoppock Law Firm, based in Kansas City, Missouri, specializes in asylum cases. A week ago, a Hoppok client who applied for asylum in 2015 received a notice to schedule a biometrics visit on the same day. The notification was mailed on August 1, 2020, but arrived on August 20, 2020. To reschedule an appointment, his client had to mail a request for a new appointment and wait for USCIS to send back the rescheduled appointment date, delaying the process by months.

Hoppock explained that two years ago, USCIS shut down the system that scheduled meetings online via InfoPass. The InfoPass assignment allowed a candidate to speak to a USCIS representative about a problem they might face while filling out forms.

“Now you need to send a request for an appointment, and if you call the USCIS number, you have to wait for hours. And often when you contact someone, they hang up or say that you are not eligible for an InfoPass meeting, ”Hoppok explained. "USCIS actually limits the ability to warn a person that something has happened."

Failure to submit biometric data not only delays an already lengthy process, but can also jeopardize the right to obtain a work permit. Asylum seekers are issued work permits pending consideration of their case, but these work permits may be canceled or not issued if there are delays in filing documents. A missed biometric appointment is one such delay.

Heather Prendergast, an immigration attorney based in Cleveland, Ohio, said that for several weeks in 2019, a local immigration officer refused to process applications without a prior copy of a USCIS receipt confirming that the application fees were paid and received. Prendergast explained that the clerk's actions violated American court orders. There are other ways to prove that you paid the registration fee, such as a copy of your receipt. Instead, however, applicants had to wait for USCIS to receive their fees and send back a receipt. Heather says it could take a month or more. With great perseverance, she and her colleagues were able to solve this problem, but other obstacles remain, and they will all be compounded by any further difficulties in the postal service.

According to Prendergast, the consequences of delayed mailing may be significant for those applying for positive perks, such as green cards, but for those in the process of deportation, a missed appointment could mean a notice of deportation in their absence.

Two weeks ago, Heather received a pile of notices for next week's naturalization ceremonies. This batch of letters contained a notice for a person who was not her client. Prendergast sent the notice to the correct address, but suspects the person may have missed the ceremony. Another example she shared came four years ago when one of her clients received a green card and was waiting for the documents to arrive in the mail. A few weeks later, Prendergast contacted the local postmaster, who wrote a letter to USCIS confirming that the documents had not been delivered. USCIS responded that this letter was not sufficient evidence.

Client Prendergast was forced to re-apply and re-submit his documents, which, Heather explained, "was not only extremely frustrating, but also costly." Her client had to pay approximately $ 1500 in additional legal and government filing fees in excess of the amount already paid for the original application.

The USCIS decision to increase the filing fee from October 1, 2020 adds significant financial stress to an already costly process. The additional costs of sending documents via FedEx or DHL are often out of reach for applicants who spend over $ 1000 on registration and attorney fees. And even if it were available, there are some documents, like green cards, that can only be sent through the USPS.

USCIS makes decisions based on the date the application was received, not the day it was postmarked, Datta explains, which makes the applicant's immigration status dependent on the postal service. Datta fears a spike in filings due to a planned fee hike before October 1, exacerbating an already congested system.

On the subject: Postman deliberately dumped letters from USCIS: dozens of immigrants were affected

Nadia and Regina (pseudonyms) got married on January 10, 2017. Nadia, originally from Lebanon, applied for a green card based on marriage within three months of the wedding date. A few weeks after submitting the application, Nadia received a notification that her application was accepted and the entire process would take no more than 18 months.

For over a year, Nadia and Regina obsessively checked their mail, hoping to receive a green card interview notice every day. They even signed up for USPS alerts - checking every morning became their daily ritual.

Finally, they received an email with the interview date: August 2, 2018. More than a year has passed since Nadia submitted the necessary documents.

“The interview went so well. We had all the paperwork, but at the end the officer told us that the medical records I had sent had expired since I applied over a year ago. So we asked if we could go to the doctor on the same day, pay for a new medical card and return, ”Nadya explained.

The officer said they would have to wait for a letter from USCIS asking for medical documents and then send them.

Another year and a half has passed and Nadia still has not received a letter from USCIS asking for updated medical records. On March 16, 2020, Nadia received a letter from USCIS, but not what she was hoping for.

“It said that my green card was denied and I had 33 days to leave the country,” she said.

USCIS, apparently only in February, sent a letter requesting additional documents (i.e. medical records), which Nadia and Regina have checked every day since August 2018, but never received.

Miscellaneous In the U.S. immigration to the USA US mail Immigration in the USA

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