1. Photocopy Everything
If you haven’t found out yet, you will very soon – filing immigration paperwork with USCIS is extremely document-heavy work. It’s not just the official forms (the “I” forms, such as the I-485) that you have to worry about – in fact, they account for only a very small part of the paper trail. Rather, much of the work consists of gathering birth certificates, passport photos, entry documentation, medical records, and so on to corroborate the immigrant’s identity. The reason why it is good practice to photo copy absolutely everything that you intend to submit to USCIS is two-fold.
First of all, original copies of documents are most-often not required to accompany any form submitted to USCIS. You don’t need to fork over your original birth certificate, passport, or vaccination records to the government in order to get the job done – a photocopy will do just fine. Note however that this does not apply to the official forms distributed by USCIS – they must always be submitted in their original form, with an original signature, filled out with blue or black ink. Nothing else will do.
Second, the sheer volume of required documentation makes having multiple copies of everything a very practical solution. You don’t want your I-130 or your I-485 or any other immigration application to be denied because you lost the only copy of a required document. Once you have all of your originals together, make a photocopy of absolutely everything – multiple copies, even – and keep them somewhere safe. When the time comes to submit your forms and accompanying documents, you’ll be ready to roll. If anything goes missing, you’ll at least have a back-up.
2. Don’t Flirt with Deadlines
USCIS takes deadlines seriously, and you should too. While the window of opportunity to submit any given form is generally pretty wide, this should not be construed to mean that the window is in any way flexible. When your time is up, your time is up. No ifs, ands. or buts.
Take the K-1 fiancé visa for instance. Once the I-129F is approved and a K-1 nonimmigrant visa is made available to your fiancé, you have 90 days from the time that they enter the country to get married and file for permanent residency. Period. That 90-day deadline is iron-clad – if your fiancé stays past 90 days and you are not yet married, they are facing deportation, plain and simple. Don’t imagine that deadlines aren’t extremely important, especially since this is the kind of problem that can be avoided.
It is good practice to submit every form and follow every step of the immigration process at your earliest available convenience. Immigration is slow work, but unfortunately, immigration is also a highly time-sensitive process. Stay ahead of the curve. Get your forms in early, and let USCIS take their sweet time (and trust me, they will).
3. Make Sure You Have the Right Form for the Right Job
So you’re engaged to a US citizen, you’ve got a job offer in the States, and you’re an asylum seeker fleeing from persecution in your home country, which happens to be Cuba?
Where to begin?
Every USCIS form is made for a specific purpose and a specific class of persons. I-485s are for nonimmigrants seeking permanent residency. N-400s are for permanent residents seeking naturalization. I-765s are for temporary residents who want to work. This might sound simple, but as the above example shows, it can sometimes be hard to know which category you fall into, and consequently, what form you should file. Filing the wrong form can have dire consequences, so do your research before you send anything out.
A handy reference is the USCIS website. Every immigration form can be found online, and the vast majority of them come with a handy “instructions for this form” hyperlink located directly under the link to the PDF form. You should always read these instructions first to make sure that you’re on the right track. The instruction forms always begin with the same two sections: What is the purpose of this form? and Who may file this form? Read these sections very carefully before proceeding.
It would be a terrible waste of time (that is already not on your side) if you filled out and gathered the documentation for the wrong form. Don’t let it happen to you. Do your research now and save yourself a headache later.
4. Keep it All Together
This is a simple housekeeping tip, but one that many people don’t observe. It is as simple as this: throughout the immigration process, you’re going to be handling a lot of documents, and the last thing you want to do is lose any of them. However, many people keep their employment records in their filing cabinet, their birth certificate in Mom’s closet, and their medical records at the doctor’s office. That is, until something unforeseen happens – and now suddenly something is missing!
To avoid such a catastrophe, put several photocopies of each of your required documents in one folder. Why? Because strange things happen, and you don’t want to have to scramble for a new copy of some vital document when USCIS sends you a request for evidence and you have a limited time to respond.
For extra security, do the above twice – that is, make two folders, each of which contains at least two photocopies of all of your necessary documentation. Store them in separate locations for obvious reasons. This may sound somewhat paranoid, but remember it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
5. If Things Get Overwhelming, Find an Attorney To Help Sort it Out
Immigration is a life-changing event, but that also means that mistakes can be incredibly costly. You can be denied entry, lose out on a job, or even have your family torn apart by a grave error somewhere along the line. Plenty of people manage to sort it all out on their own and successfully immigrate without any outside help. But for some, there may come a time when it becomes too much to handle.
An experienced immigration attorney is the best source to help you wade through the sometimes murky waters of the immigration process. Not only can they assist in helping you gather proper documentation and ensure that you submit the proper forms, but if something should take a turn for a worse, an immigration attorney will have your back.
With something as important as immigration, it’s never a bad time to ask for help. Stay mindful of your progress. If you hit a snag that you can’t get past, perhaps it’s time to pick up the phone and get someone on your side.