Dear Sophie: What’s happening with visa application receipt notices?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

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Dear Sophie,

Our startup employs several individuals who are on work visas or have employment authorization. Many of them have been waiting for quite a while for the government to tell them their applications have been received.

Why? When will things be back on track? We have a few employees who are waiting for green cards, and a few F-1 visa holders who will be extending their OPT to STEM OPT.

Is there anything we can do?

— Patient in Pasadena

Dear Patient,

Thanks for your questions. Last September, an increase in applications submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) amid COVID-19-related staff reductions created a substantial backlog and subsequent delay in USCIS sending out receipt notices.

My law firm partner, Anita Koumriqian, and I provided an update on receipt notices on a recent podcast. Dedicating an entire episode to receipt notices was unthinkable a year ago because applicants usually received receipt notices within one to three weeks after USCIS received their application.

For those who don’t know, USCIS sends a letter called a receipt notice to applicants when it receives an application. The receipt notice — also known as a Notice of Action or Form I-797 — contains information about:

  • Whether the application was accepted, in which case you will be notified of how it will be processed, or rejected if it was not filed appropriately, such as not using the latest form or forgetting to check a box on the application form.
  • A receipt number, which can be used to check the status of your case either online or by phone.
  • The date your application was received, which for most green card applications is the priority date. (Priority dates for the EB-2 and EB-3 green cards are when the Labor Department received the PERM Labor Certification application.) A priority date determines your place in line for a green card number to become available based on the green card category and the green card candidate’s country of birth.

What caused the backlog?

Before the pandemic, applicants would typically be notified in less than one month after USCIS received their application. Currently, applicants are receiving their receipt notice as long as eight to nine weeks after USCIS received their application, and sometimes longer.

As I mentioned earlier, coronavirus-related staffing reductions at USCIS coupled with a substantial jump in the number of applications submitted prompted huge delays that began in September. Application submissions surged primarily due to:

  • Anticipation of fee hikes that were slated to go into effect on October 2, 2020, before being blocked by a federal court judge.
  • Rapid forward movement in the monthly Visa Bulletin for some green card categories, which meant green card numbers became available to many waiting in line.