USCIS Expansion of the I-601A Provisional Waiver Program In-Depth

USCIS Expansion of the I-601A Provisional Waiver Program In-Depth

Selected discussions on the recent expansion of the I-601A Provisional Waiver process by the USCIS follow below:

The provisional unlawful presence waiver (“provisional waiver”) process allows certain individuals who are present in the United States to request from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) a provisional waiver of these grounds of inadmissibility before departing the United States for consular processing of their immigrant visas – rather than applying for a waiver abroad after their immigrant visa interviews using the Form I-601, Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility (“Form I-601 waiver process”).

The provisional waiver process is designed to encourage unlawfully present individuals to leave the United States, attend their immigrant visa interviews, and return to the United States legally to reunite with their U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) family members.

Having an approved provisional waiver helps facilitate immigrant visa issuance at DOS, streamlines both the waiver and the immigrant visa processes, and reduces the time that applicants are separated from their U.S. citizen or LPR family members, thus promoting family unity.

Generally, individuals who are in the United States and seeking lawful permanent resident (LPR) status must either obtain an immigrant visa abroad through what is known as “consular processing” with the Department of State (DOS) or apply to adjust their immigration status to that of an LPR in the United States, if eligible. Individuals present in the United States without having been inspected and admitted or paroled are typically ineligible to adjust their status in the United States.

To obtain LPR status, such individuals must leave the United States for immigrant visa processing at a U.S. Embassy or consulate abroad. But because these individuals are present in the United States without having been inspected and admitted or paroled, their departures may trigger a ground of inadmissibility based on the accrual of unlawful presence in the United States under INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(i), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(i).

Under subclause (I) of this provision, an individual who has been unlawfully present in the United States for more than 180 days but less than one year, and who then departs voluntarily from the United States before the commencement of removal proceedings, is inadmissible for 3 years from the date of departure. See INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(i)(I), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(i)(I).

Under subclause (II), an individual who has been unlawfully present in the United States for one year or more and then departs the United States (before, during, or after removal proceedings), is inadmissible for 10 years from the date of the departure. See INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(i)(II), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(i)(II).

These “3- and 10-year unlawful presence bars” do not take effect unless and until the individual departs from the United States. See, e.g., Matter of Rodarte-Roman, 23 I. & N. Dec. 905 (BIA 2006).

The Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary) may waive this ground of inadmissibility for an individual who can demonstrate that the refusal of his or her admission to the United States would result in extreme hardship to his or her U.S. citizen or LPR spouse or parent. See INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(v), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(v).

Prior to the creation of the provisional waiver process in 2013, any individual who was seeking an immigrant visa and became inadmissible under the 3- or 10-year unlawful presence bar upon departure from the United States, could apply for a waiver of such inadmissibility from DHS by filing an Application for Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility, Form I-601, with USCIS, but only after having attended the consular immigrant visa interview abroad. Those who applied for waivers under this “Form I-601 waiver process” were effectively required to remain abroad for at least several months while USCIS adjudicated their waiver applications.

For some individuals, the Form I-601 waiver process led to lengthy separations of immigrant visa applicants from their family members, causing some U.S. citizens and LPRs to experience the significant emotional and financial hardships that Congress aimed to avoid when it authorized the waiver. See INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(v), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(v) (providing for an inadmissibility waiver, “if it is established to the satisfaction of the Attorney General that the refusal of admission to such immigrant alien would result in extreme hardship to the citizen or lawfully resident spouse or parent of such alien”).

For this reason, many relatives of U.S. citizens and LPRs who are eligible to obtain LPR status may be reluctant to travel abroad to seek immigrant visas and obtain such status. The Form I-601 waiver process also created processing inefficiencies for both USCIS and DOS through repeated interagency communication and through multiple consular appointments or interviews.

On July 22, 2015, DHS proposed to expand the class of individuals who may be eligible for provisional waivers beyond certain immediate relatives of U.S. citizens to all statutorily eligible individuals regardless of their immigrant visa classification. DHS also proposed to expand the class of individuals who could obtain provisional waivers, consistent with the statutory waiver authority, by permitting consideration of extreme hardship not only to U.S. citizen spouses or parents, but also to LPR spouses or parents.

In this final rule, DHS adopts the changes discussed in the proposed rule with several modifications in response to comments submitted on the proposed rule. The new modifications include:

1) Clarifying that all individuals seeking provisional waivers, including those in removal proceedings before the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), must file applications for provisional waivers with USCIS.

2) Allowing individuals to apply for provisional waivers even if USCIS has a reason to believe that they may be subject to other grounds of inadmissibility.

3) Eliminating the proposed temporal limitations that would have restricted eligibility for provisional waivers based on DOS visa interview scheduling.

4) Allowing individuals with final orders of removal, exclusion, or deportation to be eligible for provisional waivers provided that they have already applied for, and USCIS has approved, an Application for Permission to Reapply for Admission into the United States After Deportation or Removal, Form I-212.

5) Clarifying that DHS must have actually reinstated a removal, deportation, or exclusion order in order for an individual who has returned to the United States unlawfully after removal to be ineligible for a provisional waiver on that basis.

In addition, DHS made several technical and non-substantive changes.

Newly eligible provisional waiver applicants and their U.S. citizen or LPR family members will benefit from this rule. Those applying for provisional waivers will receive advance notice of USCIS’ decision to provisionally waive their 3- or 10-year unlawful presence bar before they leave the United States for their immigrant visa interview abroad. This offers applicants and their family members the certainty of knowing that the applicants have been provisionally approved for waivers of the 3- and 10-year unlawful presence bars before departing from the United States.

Individuals with approved provisional waivers may experience shortened periods of separation from their family members living in the United States while they pursue issuance of immigrant visas abroad, thus reducing any related financial and emotional strains on the families.

Eligibility for the Provisional Waiver

1. Categories of Eligible Individuals

The Secretary is authorized to waive the 3- and 10-year unlawful presence bars for individuals seeking admission to the United States as immigrants if they can show that the refusal of admission would result in extreme hardship to a qualifying U.S. citizen or LPR spouse or parent, and provided that the applicant warrants a favorable exercise of discretion. See INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(v), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(v).

With this final rule, DHS is allowing all individuals who are statutorily eligible for an immigrant visa and who meet the legal requirements for a waiver under INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(v), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(v), to seek a provisional waiver in accordance with new 8 CFR 212.7(e). Consistent with the current provisional waiver process, provisional waivers are available only to those who are present in the United States, who must apply for immigrant visas at U.S. embassies or consulates abroad, and who at the time of the immigrant visa interview may be inadmissible based on the accrual of unlawful presence under INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(i), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(i).

DHS can only expand the pool of individuals eligible for this process to those who fall within one of the current statutory immigrant visa classifications and who meet the requirements for the unlawful presence waiver described in INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(v), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(v). DHS cannot expand eligibility to those who are not statutorily eligible for such waivers under current law.

Similarly, DHS cannot change who is statutorily eligible to adjust status in the United States. Intending immigrants who are present in the United States but ineligible to adjust status must depart the United States and obtain their immigrant visas through consular processing abroad; approval of a provisional waiver does not change this requirement. See INA sections 104, 202(a)(1)(B), 211, 221, 222 and 245; 8 U.S.C. 1104, 1152(a)(1)(B), 1181, 1201, 1202, and 1255. See generally 8 CFR part 245; 22 CFR part 42.

To clarify, in the proposed rule, DHS sought to include all beneficiaries of approved immigrant visa petitions who are statutorily eligible for a waiver of the 3- and 10-year unlawful presence bars, regardless of age, marital status, or immigration status. Individuals with approved immigrant visa petitions, including sons and daughters (married or unmarried) of U.S. citizens, as well as those who have been selected to participate in the Diversity Visa program, may participate in the provisional waiver process provided they meet the requirements stated in 8 CFR 212.7(e). Consistent with its statutory authority under INA section 212(a)(9)(B)(v), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(B)(v), DHS will no longer limit the provisional waiver process to certain immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.

2. Reason-to-Believe Standard

DHS has decided to eliminate the reason-to-believe standard as a basis for denying provisional waiver applications. Accordingly, when adjudicating such applications, USCIS will only consider whether extreme hardship has been established and whether the applicant warrants a favorable exercise of discretion.

However, although this final rule eliminates the reason-to believe standard, the final rule retains the provision that provides for the automatic revocation of an approved provisional waiver application if the DOS consular officer ultimately determines that the applicant is ineligible for the immigrant visa based on other grounds of inadmissibility. See 8 CFR 212.7(e)(14)(i).

DHS thus cautions and reminds individuals that even if USCIS approves a provisional waiver application, DOS may still find the applicant inadmissible on other grounds at the time of the immigrant visa interview. If DOS finds the applicant ineligible for the immigrant visa or inadmissible on grounds other than unlawful presence, the approval of the provisional waiver application is automatically revoked. In such cases, the individual may again apply for a waiver of the unlawful presence ground of inadmissibility, in combination with any other waivable grounds of inadmissibility, by using the Form I-601 waiver process.

As in all discretionary matters, DHS also has the authority to deny provisional waiver applications as a matter of discretion even if the applicant satisfies the eligibility criteria. See 8 CFR 212.7(e)(2)(i). Additionally, USCIS may reopen and reconsider its decision to approve or deny a provisional waiver before or after the waiver becomes effective if it is determined that the decision was made in error. See 8 CFR 212.7(e)(13) and 8 CFR 212.7(a)(4)(v).

As has always been the case, DHS will continue to uphold the integrity and security of the provisional waiver process by conducting full background and security checks to assess whether an individual may be a threat to national security or public safety. If the background check or the individual’s immigration file reveals derogatory information, including a criminal record, USCIS will analyze the significance of the information and may deny the provisional waiver application as a matter of discretion.

Finally, the extreme hardship and discretionary eligibility assessments made during a provisional waiver adjudication could be impacted by additional grounds of inadmissibility and other information that was not known and therefore not considered during the adjudication.

Accordingly, USCIS is not bound by these determinations when adjudicating subsequent applications filed by the same applicant, such as an application filed to waive grounds of inadmissibility, including a waiver of the unlawful presence grounds of inadmissibility. In other words, because separate inadmissibility grounds and material information not before USCIS at the time of adjudication may alter the totality of the circumstances present in an individual’s case, a prior determination that an applicant’s U.S. citizen or LPR spouse would suffer extreme hardship if the applicant were refused admission (and that the applicant merits a provisional waiver as a matter of discretion) does not dictate that USCIS must make the same determination in the future, although the factors and circumstances underlying the prior decision may be taken into account when reviewing the cases under the totality of the circumstances.

3. DHS is eliminating the restrictions based on the date that DOS acted to schedule the immigrant visa interview.

USCIS will adjust its processing of petitions and applications so that neither DOS nor USCIS will be adversely affected by the elimination of this restriction. Please note, however, that elimination of these date restrictions does not alter other laws and regulations relating to the availability of immigrant visas. Applicants will still be unable to obtain immigrant visas until an immigrant visa number is available based on the applicant’s priority date. Applicants will need to act promptly, once DOS notifies them that they can file their immigrant visa application. If applicants do not apply within one year of this notice, DOS has authority to terminate their registration for an immigrant visa. See INA section 203(g), 8 U.S.C. 1153(g); see also 22 CFR 42.8(a). That action will also result in automatic revocation of the approval of the related immigrant visa petition. 8 CFR 205.1(a)(1).

In such a situation, applicants will have two options for continuing to pursue a provisional waiver. One option is for an applicant to ask DOS to reinstate the registration pursuant to 22 C.F.R. 42.83(d). If DOS reinstates the registration, approval of the immigrant visa petition is also reinstated. Once such an applicant has paid the immigrant visa processing fee for the related immigrant visa application, the applicant can apply for a provisional waiver. A second option is for the relevant immigrant visa petitioner to file a new immigrant visa petition with USCIS. If USCIS approves the new immigrant visa petition, the beneficiary could then apply for the provisional waiver after paying the immigrant visa processing fee based on the new petition if otherwise eligible.

4. Individuals in Removal Proceedings

On November 20, 2014, the Secretary directed the Department’s immigration components—USCIS, ICE, and CBP—to exercise prosecutorial discretion, when appropriate, as early as possible in proceedings to ensure that DHS’s limited resources are devoted to the greatest degree possible to the pursuit of enforcement priorities.  Prosecutorial discretion applies not only to the decision to issue, serve, file, or cancel an NTA, but also to other broad
ranges of discretionary measures.  To promote docket efficiency and to ensure that finite enforcement resources are used effectively, ICE carefully reviews cases pending before the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to ensure that all cases align with the agency’s enforcement and removal policies. As such, once an NTA is issued, ICE attorneys are directed to review the case, at the earliest opportunity, for the potential exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) likewise instructs its immigration judges to use available docketing tools to ensure fair and timely resolution of cases, and to ask ICE attorneys at master calendar hearings whether ICE is seeking dismissal or administrative closure of a case.  In general, those who are low priorities for removal and are otherwise eligible for LPR status may be able to apply for provisional waivers.  Among other things, ICE may agree to administratively close immigration proceedings for individuals who are eligible to pursue a provisional waiver and are not currently considered a DHS enforcement priority.  ICE also works to facilitate, as appropriate, the timely termination or dismissal of administratively closed removal proceedings once USCIS approves a provisional waiver.

DHS believes the aforementioned steps being undertaken by ICE and EOIR to determine whether cases should be administratively closed effectively balances the commenters’ provisional waiver eligibility concerns and agency resources in considering the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Consequently, this rule has not changed the provisional waiver process and will not permit individuals in active removal proceedings to apply for or receive provisional waivers, unless their cases are administratively closed. The Department believes that current processes provide ample opportunity for eligible applicants to seek a provisional waiver, while improving the allocation of government resources and ensuring national security, public safety, and border security.

5. Individuals Subject to Final Orders of Removal, Deportation, or Exclusion

As a preliminary matter, DHS notes that requiring the filing of separate Forms I-601A and I-212 simply reflects the fact that they are intended to address two separate grounds of inadmissibility, each with different waiver eligibility requirements. In response to the comments, however, DHS has amended the rule to allow individuals with final orders of removal, deportation, or exclusion to apply for provisional waivers if they have filed a Form I- 212 application seeking consent to reapply for admission and such an application has been conditionally approved.

Anyone who departs the United States while a final order is outstanding is considered to have executed that order. See INA section 101(g), 8 U.S.C. 1101(g); 8 CFR 241.7. The execution of such an order renders the individual inadmissible to the United States for a period of 5-20 years under INA section 212(a)(9)(A), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(A). Certain individuals, however, may seek consent to reapply for admission to the United States before the period of inadmissibility has expired. See INA section 212(a)(9)(A)(iii), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(A)(iii).

DHS regulations provide a process for those in the United States to apply for such consent by filing a Form I-212 application before departing the United States. See 8 CFR 212.2(j). As with the provisional waiver process, the pre-departure approval of a Form I-212 application is conditioned on the applicant subsequently departing the United States.

Thus, if an individual who is inadmissible under INA section 212(a)(9)(A), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(A), obtains a conditional approval of his or her Form I-212 application while in the United States and thereafter departs to attend the immigrant visa interview abroad, he or she generally is no longer inadmissible under that section at the time of the immigrant visa interview and can be issued an immigrant visa.

Given that an applicant still has to demonstrate visa eligibility, including admissibility, at the time of the immigrant visa interview and that DHS has decided to eliminate the reason-to-believe standard, the Department believes the goals of the provisional waiver process are supported by making it available to those with final orders only if they already have conditionally approved a Form I-212 application. The final rule thus extends eligibility for provisional waivers to such individuals. See 8 CFR 212.7(e)(4)(iv).

Such an individual, however, must have the conditionally approved Form I-212 application at the time of filing the provisional waiver application. See 8 CFR 212.7(e)(4)(iv). USCIS will deny a provisional waiver application if the applicant’s Form I-212 application has not yet been conditionally approved at the time the individual files his or her provisional waiver application. Additionally, if during the immigrant visa interview the consular officer finds that the applicant is inadmissible on other grounds that have not been waived, the approved provisional waiver will be automatically revoked. See 8 CFR 212.7(e)(14)(i).

Finally, DHS notes that approval of Forms I-601A and I-212 does not waive inadmissibility under INA section 212(a)(9)(C), 8 U.S.C 1182(a)(9)(C), for having returned to the United States without inspection and admission or parole after a prior removal or prior unlawful presence. See INA section 212(a)(9)(C)(ii), 8 U.S.C 1182(a)(9)(C)(ii); Matter of Briones, 24 I&N Dec. 355 (BIA 2007); Matter of Torres-Garcia, 23 I&N Dec. 866 (BIA 2006).

6. Individuals Granted Voluntary Departure

DHS has determined that individuals granted voluntary departure will not be eligible for provisional waivers. First, if an individual obtains voluntary departure while in removal proceedings, the immigration judge is required by law to enter an alternate order of removal. See 8 CFR 1240.26(d). DHS cannot execute the alternate order of removal during the voluntary departure period because such an order is not yet in effect. But if the individual does not depart as required under the order of voluntary departure, the alternate order of removal automatically becomes fully effective without any additional proceeding. See 8 CFR 1240.26(d). Thus, an individual who fails to leave as required under a grant of voluntary departure will have an administratively final order of removal, and will thus be ineligible for a provisional waiver. See INA section 240B(d)(1), 8 U.S.C. 1229c(d)(1); 8 CFR 212.7(e)(4)(iv).

Under current law, removal proceedings for such individuals are considered to have ended when the grant of voluntary departure, with an alternate removal order, becomes administratively final. See INA sections 101(a)(47), 240(c)(1)(A), 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(47), 1229(a)(c)(1)(A); 8 CFR 241.1, 1003.39, 1241.1; Matter of Shih, 20 I&N Dec. 697 (BIA 1993).

Second, a fundamental premise for a grant of voluntary departure is that the individual who is granted voluntary departure intends to leave the United States as required. See INA section 240B(b)(1)(D), 8 U.S.C. 1229c(b)(1)(D); Dada v. Mukasey, 554 U.S. 1, 18 (2008).  Allowing an individual whose voluntary departure period has not expired to apply for a provisional waiver would suggest that the individual is excused from complying with the order of voluntary departure. This result would contradict the purpose of voluntary departure— allowing the subject to leave promptly without incurring the future inadmissibility that results from removal. For these reasons, DHS did not modify the rule to allow those with grants of voluntary departure to apply for provisional waivers.