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US tries to ease fears over visa changes

The US has reacted to concern over its new visa policy, which some fear could cause huge delays for American expatriates wanting to return home with their non-American spouses and child-ren, by producing a list of “compelling circumstances” that would bypass a newly centralised system.

A United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rule change, set to take effect on Monday, states that American citizens living in countries such as Cambodia  must submit visa requests for alien relatives to a central office in Chicago, rather than to the nearest US embassy or consulate.

Democrats Abroad Cambodia chairman Wayne Weightman has warned that the change could lead to delays of up to three years in obtaining such visas.

In a conference call yesterday with affected parties, USCIS officials revealed that overseas petitioners could file to their local consulate if they could prove a “compell-ing circumstance”.

According to a memo released after the call, such circumstances include military and medical emergencies, threats to personal safety, cases approaching a set time limit and cases involving the adoption of a child.

Officials  have the discret-ion to authorise local adjud-ications “on a case by case basis” but consulates may  adjudicate only on cases that are “clearly approvable”.

A “large-scale crisis” such as a natural disaster or a humanitarian emergency could also lead to the blanket processing of alien-relative visas, the memo states.

During the conference call, USCIS officials explained the thought process behind the change in the filing process, saying that US processing would improve “efficiency” and “quality assurance”.  

“We determined that the officers that we had that were doing this [processing alien relative visa requests] dom-estically had superior expertise than those who were in [consular] posts,” a USCIS official said.

Officials estimated that the processing time for overseas petitions would be identical to those filed domestically, which is currently five months.  But participants in the conference call remained critical, with many slamming it as a “misguided” policy.

Indonesian American Chamber of Commerce governor Arian Ardie called the new law “ridiculous” and said it would be “a major impediment to US competitiveness overseas”.

USCIS officials responded that “certain employment relocations could qualify as compelling circumstance”.

Weightman said the rule change was complicating a system that already worked effectively.

“We have a very efficient system, and now we’re going to make it more complex by implementing a multi-step process. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.  

“It concerns me that they are just going to dump us all into the US-based process, and that will take longer.”

Weightman said he was disappointed by last night’s conference call, because he felt that “the questions weren’t fully answered”.

Many participating callers also hit out at USCIS for a lack of transparency and forethought in the process, but officials said the decision had been taken after a year of careful planning.

They added that two prev-ious conference calls with stakeholders had been held within the past year.

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