Speeding Up the Immigration Process in Emergency Situations: Expedited Processing

If you have an urgent need for USCIS to make a decision on your immigration case, you can potentially ask for expedited processing.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

In any dealings with the U.S. immigration authorities, in particular U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), you can expect to encounter long waits and unexpected delays. This is a perennial source of frustration to immigrants and their attorneys. In some cases, waiting for an answer from the U.S. government can jeopardize the applicant's health, family stability, or overall immigration situation.

There are ways to request faster processing, but only in limited, truly urgent circumstances. We'll describe what to do here.

Bad News About USCIS Wait Times

Unfortunately, there is not usually much you can do about the long waits. USCIS is perpetually overworked, and the COVID pandemic only made matters worse. Practically everyone's file spends a lot of time sitting in mail rooms or in officers' "pending" trays before receiving the attention it deserves. (You can check its current processing times for most types of applications; don't be surprised to see waits of many months or years.)

The agency has gotten used to hearing consumer complaints along the lines of, "This is taking too long!" Its answer is usually, in effect, "Tell it to Congress, so they'll allocate more resources our way."

Nevertheless, if there is some reason that your application really should be given immediate attention—that is, put ahead of all the other waiting applications—you should ask for what is called "Expedited Processing." While requesting an expedite is best done with an attorney's help, we will describe what it involves below.

What About Requesting Premium Processing?

You might have heard about something called "Premium Processing," by which some applicants can pay a huge fee to have USCIS make a decision on their application or petition within a short time, around two weeks. Unfortunately, this is not available to most types of immigration applicants.

Thus far, it can be used only by employers sponsoring immigrants for work visas, certain F-1 students (categories C03A, C03B, and C03C) seeking work authorization on Form I-765, and some temporary visa holders applying to change status (to category F-1, F-2, M-1, M-2, J-1, J-2, E-1, E-2, E-3, L-2, H-4, O-3, P-4, or R-2) on Form I-539. However, USCIS has been expanding the categories of applicants allowed to request premium processing, so double check this information before giving up.

Who Can Request Expedited Processing From USCIS

If USCIS were ready to grant speedy processing to everyone, it wouldn't always be delayed. Thus you will need to make sure you can describe a true emergency need for help, such as:

  • a family member is seriously ill or dying in your home country and you need permission to leave the country during your green card processing to visit them
  • you are a member of the military who will be shipped overseas on a certain date, but wish to bring your overseas fiancé to the United States in order to get married before that date, or
  • you have a scheduled surgery coming up, with a long recovery period afterward, and might be unable to attend an important USCIS appointment if it is not scheduled before the surgery.

Remember, USCIS will not (and cannot) change the laws to accommodate you. If, for example, you are waiting in line for a family- or employment-based visa based on a priority date, and the government has already given out the maximum number in your category that year but your priority date still is not current, nothing you can do will convince it to give you a visa out of next year's allotment.

But if you're simply waiting for the government to act on something that it could do any time, but for being backed up with excess work, you can legitimately ask for quicker attention.

There is also a special opportunity to ask for "priority processing" of your adjustment of status (I-485) or naturalization (N-400) application if your Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is about to run out and USCIS has already taken more than four months without deciding your application.

How to Request Expedited Processing From USCIS

In order to make an expedited processing request, you will need to prepare a letter and send it to whichever office is currently handling your case file—most likely the last one from which you received correspondence.

The letter should include enough personal detail that the USCIS officer can locate your file (in particular, the petitioner and beneficiary's names, beneficiary's date of birth and alien number (A#) if any, and the case number from your receipt notice).

The letter should also outline the reasons for the request, making sure to explain exactly what you need and what will go terribly wrong if the request is not granted.

Do your best to include proof of any claimed emergency, such as a letter from a doctor or a copy of your military orders.

Make a complete copy of the request, and send it via certified mail or some courier service with tracking. If you don't hear anything from USCIS within four weeks, send a follow-up letter or consult an attorney.

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