There’s a saying that distance makes the heart grow fonder. But that is not always true while waiting for U.S. immigration processing of spousal sponsorships. It takes way too long to get a foreign spouse into the United States these days. Let’s consider one real case that happened a while ago, as an example.
A few years ago, Dr. Jay Frankel, a psychologist in New Jersey, met a woman at a conference in British Columbia. He gave a lecture there and she was interested in the topic he was talking about. Her name was Suzanne and she was a special education teacher and a scholar of Bible translation. A friendly relationship started and in due course, they fell in love. They married, and Dr. Frankel filed a spousal sponsorship to bring his spouse from Canada to the United States. That was in December of 2013. There was just one problem. The Canadian spouse was ill – suffering from cancer. Dr. Frankel clearly needed to speed up the processing of the matter.
Normally a spousal application of this kind goes through phases of processing.
Phase One – The Petition
The first phase is with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) where a petition is filed and the USCIS reviews the petitioner’s life to determine if there is any reason why the petition should be denied. Petitions from people who are currently imprisoned, for example, would be denied for policy reasons. In Dr. Frankel’s case however, there were no reasons why the petition should have been denied. It was therefore approved and transferred to the National Visa Center, which was the second phase in the process. That was done in August 2014.
Phase Two – The National Visa Center
At the National Visa Center (NVC), the application is prepared for a consulate review. The National Visa Center is the quarterback for all U.S. consulates worldwide. Its job is to make sure that all the paperwork is properly done. An affidavit of support signed by the sponsor is required to indicate he is prepared to support the would-be immigrant. Certain fees have to be paid. Police clearances are obtained for the would-be immigrant from all countries where the immigrant lived for more than six months. Finally a comprehensive online form is submitted in which the case is essentially briefed for the visa officers. This was all completed in Dr. Frankel’s case by December 2014.
Phase Three -The Interview at the U.S. Consulate Abroad
Following the National Visa Center review, the next phase is for the immigrant to attend an interview. In Dr. Frankel’s case, the Canadian spouse had to attend the interview at the U.S. consulate in Montreal, which is the only consulate that processes spousal cases in Canada. The Frankle appointment only came in March 2015 and Suzanne was approved as an applicant for permanent residence then.
Failure of the System
Despite best efforts to get the case expedited, including various appeals to the NVC, the involvement of a Senator from New Jersey and a Congressman to expedite the application, the matter was stuck. Nothing seemed to work to expedite the case. Finally, what did help, was what Dr. Frankel believed was an “extraordinary step,” when the American Immigration Lawyers Association got involved. Dr. Frankel said, “The liaison called me within a couple of days. Things went very quickly at that point. Suzanne was in fact awarded her green card, and we soon drove across the border from Canada in March of 2015 and got it activated. But her cancer returned in April, and she died in June 2015, so was never able to really move in with me and live in New Jersey.”
This case illustrates why reforms to the spousal processing process need to be made. It should not have taken Suzanne a year and three months to immigrate to the USA, particularly since it was an “urgent” case.
Current Processing Times for Spousal Cases
Current processing times for spousal sponsorship petitions are taking between seven to 30 months. Processing times can be checked on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service website. But these processing times only tell you how long it will take for the petition to be approved. Once you find that out, then you have to add about two months for the case to be transferred to the National Visa Center. Then, in normal times, it takes about two or three months for the National Visa Center to set up an appointment at a U.S. Consulate abroad. In total, under normal circumstances, one can expect that a spousal application will take somewhere between a year to a year and a half to be processed from beginning to the end before the foreign spouse can come to the United States. This assumes no significant delays due to Covid and that the petition is approved closer to seven months rather than 30 months. The Frankel case was extraordinary and required expedited processing and even then it took 15 months to process.
To draw an analogy, waiting for a spousal case to get through the system is very much like waiting for your broken leg to heal. It just takes a very long time. But should it?
A Concrete Example of What Can be Done
If, however, we made spousal processing a priority, the frustration of delays would be relieved and family unification, which is a priority of immigration, would be better served. Let us consider a concrete example of what can be done to address this problem.
Canada recently took expediting spousal sponsorships to heart. Just a couple of months ago, Marco E. L. Mendicino, Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, announced Canada would speed up spousal application processing. The Minister said, “We understand that the last few months have not been easy for those who are far from their loved ones in these difficult times. This is why we are accelerating the approval of spousal applications as much as possible.” His Department therefore increased the number of decision makers on spousal applications by over 65 percent to process spousal applications more quickly and reduce wait times for couples. New technology to digitize paper applications was introduced so Department employees could work remotely and at various worksites. In addition to implementing facilitative biometrics measures, the Department is piloting technology to conduct interviews with applicants remotely, in adherence with public health protocols. With these initiatives, the Ministry aims to complete almost 20,000 cases in the last quarter of 2020 – a significant increase from what was being done before.
It’s Time for U.S. Leadership on this Front
It is time for U.S. leaders to take the initiative on the issue of spousal sponsorship application processing. These examples show the way things can be improved. There are others. It is just a matter of committing to better treatment of spousal cases, especially those like Dr. Frankel’s.