Dual changes this month in green card policy might help speed up the application process for workers already in the U.S., if the State Department and United States Citizen and Immigration Services do not clash over priorities in processing applications, immigration attorneys told GlobalAtlanta.

The State Department’s Feb. 8 announcement that it is moving up the priority dates from Nov. 1, 2002, to Jan. 1, 2005, allows anyone who applied for a green card before the latter date to schedule an interview with immigration officials.

This follows a Feb. 4 memorandum from Michael Aytes, associate director of the immigration service’s domestic operations, saying that green card applicants who have passed the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s fingerprint and computer screenings will have a waiting period of only 180 days before they are cleared to schedule an interview with immigration officials, ending previously limitless wait times.

Despite these changes, Scott Titshaw, an immigration attorney with Atlanta-based Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, said that previous conflicts between the two federal agencies have caused delays in the already lengthy process and discouraged green card applicants from working in the U.S.

James Nolan, an independent immigration attorney in New York, said that when the new priority dates go into effect March 1, they provide a window of opportunity for applicants to advance to the interview stage more quickly than expected.
“(Green card applicants) should contact their company and their lawyer immediately and get that process started,” he said, adding that the State Department might change the dates again. “Sometimes (the date) goes backwards and people who didn’t file quickly enough face huge delays.”

Mr. Titshaw said that the change in priority dates is a signal from the State Department that immigration services have fallen behind in filling employment-based green card quotas for the year, due to its focus on naturalizing new citizens rather than processing green card applications over the last several months.

Priority date changes have prompted conflict between the agencies in the past.

“What we’ll be afraid of is a standoff between USCIS and the Department of State that squeezes our clients in between,” Mr. Titshaw said.

He added that last July the State Department widened priority dates due to a fear that immigration services would not fill green card quotas. This prompted applicants to arrange expensive airfares and medical examinations before being told by immigration that the quota had been filled.

Mr. Titshaw said that the outrage among immigration attorneys and their clients caused several lawsuits to be filed against the U.S. government, eventually prompting the government to revert to its original stance.

Immigration services’ change in FBI review policy is designed to speed up the process for all applicants.

Mr. Titshaw said that before this, green card applicants have had to pass a search of their name in a criminal database before scheduling an interview, a process that can produce many misleading results and take years to resolve.

“If someone’s named ‘John Smith’ or ‘Juan Garcia,’ there might be a lot of people with a similar name, and some of those people might have committed a crime,” he said.

Mr. Titshaw added that it is very rare for actual criminals to pass a fingerprint examination and then be caught in a name check.

The memorandum says that the FBI will continue to screen names after a green card is issued, and will revoke the card if any adverse behavior is discovered.

Mr. Titshaw said that changes to green card policy affect Georgia in particular due to growing international business ties in the state.

“We’re one of the states that business immigration has helped economically, and one of the states where we have more employment-based immigrants than most,” he said.

Mr. Titshaw added that the U.S. risks losing skilled immigrant workers due to the long, complicated process of getting a green card. “Other countries are more than happy to step in and pick up those talented young people” not allowed into the U.S., he said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...