Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Completing our Visa Application on our Own Paid Off

LA Airport | How Completing our Visa Application on our Own Paid Off
The stairway to immigration, Tom Bradley International Airport, Los Angeles, CA
He writes…

One of the most pressing questions we faced when we first began our visa application process was whether or not to hire someone to help us with it. We considered it, spoke with a couple of pros, and then I met with an immigration attorney to start the process. However, a seemingly innocent question from a representative from the law firm opened our eyes and answered an even bigger question for us: we needed to do it ourselves.

Back when we first began our process, a family member’s friend referred us to an immigration specialist. During a brief consultation period (and what I discovered later to be unnecessary and a complete waste of money), Kira and I were asked to complete a personal profile and questionnaire after being assured that this firm “handled many Filipino spouse petitions.” The questionnaire was emailed to both Kira and me.

One of the items on Kira’s questionnaire was a request to “Write your name and address in Tagalog,” on multiple forms in multiple areas.

This was a simple question, but it clearly indicated that the sender didn’t know that Tagalog had been romanized during the Spanish colonization before 1898, and further suggested that there were no Filipino immigration cases handled prior to ours. We declined their services without hesitation.

With such an important process, one could (correctly) ask why we didn’t try to find someone else. We did ask around in casual conversations. We heard the stories of nightmares of those who felt overwhelmed by the process and didn’t hire professional help, and whose applications were delayed for years at a time. They afterwards spent thousands of dollars to fix things that should have been handled professionally to begin with.

When we then decided to go about it on our own, we prepared ourselves for what was sure to be many complexities in the process and the system that we would likely encounter along the way. We scoured the Internet for information, and read as much as we could. Instead of fear (which is what often motivates someone to throw money at a personal solution without knowing why), we felt supremely confident in our abilities to succeed, as well as in our decision to handle this important process ourselves.

Here’s why:

The process needs subjectivity

Maintaining some distance from a project or endeavor makes it easier to maintain some objectivity about it. Conversely, the same is true for the subjectivity that results from being close to a project or endeavor. For the petition and all other documents, applications, and submissions, subjectivity is absolutely essential.

Subjectivity and the intimate knowledge of everything that pertains to your immigration application are helpful because the quality of the submission is a reflection of you. You can and should be confident and assured that things will be done right. There’s a comforting effect behind personalization. You’ll proofread the forms you’ve worked on and check the supporting documents two, three, six, maybe 10 times before sending them off. But someone else who’s handling 20 to 30 cases like yours most likely won’t give it the same level of detail that you would.

The level of “detail” that I felt worked for us was the vigorous follow-up and follow-through that we conducted at every stage of the process. The NVC was where most of our submissions went, and they can be contacted by telephone by whomever is willing to be on hold for a significant amount of time. The NVC website’s recommendation to call during off-peak hours is spot on. Whenever I had to call them, I was on the phone at 4:00 a.m. (Pacific time), or at 8:00 p.m. I had better luck in the wee hours. I fondly remember my “record” connect time of 17 minutes! All other hold times were 45 to 70 minutes.

Timing of document submissions

The visa application process consists of numerous cycles of document submissions. Every submission has a period of time during which the USCIS or National Visa Center (NVC) has to check the documents in, review them, process them, then send a notification out to the Petitioner about the next set of documents needed for the next phase. These cycles of document reviews are what most likely cause the process to be so lengthy.

We never allowed more than two business days to go by between each cycle of document submissions. We had the luxury of doing so because we were handling the process on our own. We could only imagine how much longer the process would have been if we hired someone to help us.

If someone else was handling our paperwork, we most likely would have had to wait for the handler of our case to contact us about what was needed, which probably wouldn’t even be close to the time that they were contacted with an update by the USCIS or NVC. We then would have needed to wait for our case handler to receive our documents, prepare them, then send them.

To give you an idea of how these “cycles” of duration impacted us, after we would send something in, we needed to wait up to two weeks for our submission to be received and checked in. There was then a somewhat standard review period of 30 business days that the USCIS or NVC usually followed. Then, another five to 10 business days would have needed to elapse before we were contacted about the document status. Just the math alone provides a decent picture of why immigration processing takes as long as it does.

The more layers of document handling you add, the longer the process would be. Removing those layers saved both time and money, and gave us the peace of mind that we were handling our case as promptly as possible.

Knowing your paperwork better than anyone else

During the interview at the US Embassy, the officer asked Kira for a document that wasn’t required, but would have supported our application, the Certificate of No Marriage (CENOMAR). We produced this document when we applied for our marriage license, and had not even looked at or thought of it since then, which was almost a year. But we kept every piece of paper related to our processing in an organized file, and had this file with us at the time of her US Embassy interview.

We were able to produce a copy of the CENOMAR, to what appeared to be the delight of the immigration officer.

Being prepared always pays off. I believe that our ability to produce such an obscure but relevant document showed the immigration officer that we had our “stuff” together and our business organized. It also showed that we took the process seriously, and we wanted to be prepared for anything.

This again is where one can benefit from handling matters oneself. If someone else handled our paperwork, we would not have been as prepared, nor would we have known the existence or whereabouts of documents that may become relevant at some point in the process. It does take effort and creativity to organize things, but it’s worth it.

Avoiding scams

Sadly, there are still plenty of scam artists out there who lurk either on the internet or at common establishments seeking their next mark. The best defense against scams is knowledge to prevent getting duped or fooled into a course of action or expense that one would later regret.

Immigration scams capitalize on ignorance, and the US government thankfully offers information on the web to guide people on how to separate legitimate resources from dishonest ones. There are several third-party websites geared towards helping applicants and their families, but there are just as many of these as there are hurtful ones. A great place to start would be http://www.uscis.gov/avoid-scams.

Costs

The costs of professional immigration services would most likely vary, depending on your case. Chances are that the more complex your case is, the more time a professional would need to spend on it.

Since the range of costs of services is so wide, it’s best to shop around among both personal referrals as well as independent ones to determine how all costs compare. One of the prices we were quoted was a “friends & family” rate of legal services for $2,000, which would have been for about 9 to 12 months of services specific to our visa application. But the experience gained from doing it ourselves was priceless.

Conclusion: the system works!

It’s difficult to avoid hearing something on the news or reading some type of headline about the current state of US Immigration. While no system is perfect, I don’t find it necessary to rant or rave about it, other than to comment that I was thrilled to be part of an important and formal process, both here in the US and in the Philippines.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the system worked for us. Thankfully, our case was fairly straightforward, and although there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to immigration processing, there are standards in the process, forms, and instructions that ensure that all can go smoothly. The application processing times take as long as they do most likely because of the sheer volume of applications received at any given time of the year, and not likely because it’s either understaffed or underfunded.

But it can be a complicated process that requires diligence, determination, and sometimes a little bit of luck that your “number” comes up sooner in the process than later. It’s not impossible to be successful without professional services, and the resulting experience gained from it is tremendously valuable. #


CLARIFY your case: Tips on completing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative

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