USCIS Suspends Biometric Screenings for Spousal Visa Renewals

Decision comes amid growing H-4, L-2 backlogs

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer May 7, 2021
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USCIS office

​The spouses of skilled foreign workers will no longer have to be fingerprinted and photographed as part of the process for renewing their status and work authorization.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) made the announcement that it would suspend biometric screening requirements for H-4 and L-2 visa holders as early as May 17 for a period of 24 months to alleviate an "unprecedented backlog of cases."

Critics of the Trump-era requirement that spouses of H-1B and L-1 visa holders submit to biometric screenings said the requirement was causing monthslong delays in processing applications.    

"The suspension is intended to eliminate the adjudication backlog that has prevented H-4 and L-2 spouses from receiving employment authorization documents (EADs) in anything close to a timely fashion," said Yuchen Zhang, an attorney in the Austin, Texas, office of Jackson Lewis.

According to USCIS, there are currently about 123,000 spouses of H-1B and L-1 visa workers waiting to extend their status, and 57,500 waiting for work authorization approvals.

"It is no secret among immigration practitioners and their affected clients that USCIS has experienced unprecedented delays and that processing times have ballooned tremendously across almost all categories in recent years," said Tahmina Watson, an immigration attorney and founder of Watson Immigration Law in Seattle. "Part of these processing delays can certainly be attributed to COVID-19, which caused widespread disruption to operations nationwide. However, a rather significant contributing factor was the Trump administration, which set up roadblocks such as requiring biometrics for categories which previously did not require biometrics."

The affected H-4 and L-2 visa holders, who are mostly women from India, are often highly educated and skilled job seekers eligible for temporary work authorization.

"When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and applications support centers that process biometrics closed, the delays mounted," Zhang said. "On top of that, there were even printing delays. It was taking so long to get H-4 and L-2 EADs approved that individuals were losing their jobs and their benefits while waiting for the cards, even if they applied the full six months before their cards expired."

USCIS filed the declaration temporally suspending the biometric requirements as a response to litigation pending in federal district court in Seattle claiming the agency's delays in issuing work permits are illegal. The 40 named plaintiffs in the case say that they and many other H-4 and L-2 visa holders have already lost their jobs, or will soon, because of processing delays. In an amicus brief, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and about 30 technology firms including Google said the lapses in work authorization require companies to expend significant resources on recruiting, hiring and training replacements.

The companies asked the Biden administration to consider rescinding the 2019 biometrics collection policy for EAD applicants because it is largely redundant, Zhang said. "Most applicants have had biometrics collected as part of a consular visa application or another benefit application."

USCIS said it will retain the discretion to require biometrics on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on May 7 also withdrew a controversial proposal from the Trump administration requiring immigrants and their U.S. sponsors to submit additional biometric information, such as iris scans, voiceprints, DNA and photographs for facial recognition as a part of their immigration applications.

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