Big changes in immigrant visa process
Big changes have come for Service Members planning to travel with their non-US citizen family members back to America. No longer do active-duty Service Members stationed in Japan need to worry about long delays and late night calls to the United Sates to obtain case updates and track down documents lost in the mail. Until recently, Service Members applying for immigrant visas for their loved ones had to submit their paperwork to a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) facility in Chicago. In many cases, it took a year or more before a visa was issued. That caused problems for Service Members PCS’ing in a matter of months, raising the possibility that family members would be left behind. Thanks to the combined efforts of U.S. Forces Japan and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, however, things have changed, and now the process can take as little as one month. This is great news for Service Members trying to minimize the stress of a PCS move, while keeping their families together.
In June 2015, in response to a joint request from U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and then-U.S. Forces Japan Commander, Lieutenant General Angelella, USCIS granted a “blanket exception” for active-duty Service Members on PCS orders not only in Japan but in any overseas location where USCIS does not have a physical presence. Under the new rules, active-duty Service Members may submit an I-130 immigrant visa petition directly to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo or the Consulate General in Naha. The I-130 petition is the first step to getting a “green card,” which allows an immigrant to live and work permanently in the United States. To begin the process in Tokyo, Service Members need to email the Embassy directly at TokyoIV@state.gov. The email must include the full legal names and dates of birth for both petitioner and beneficiary, as well as proof of active-duty status of the petitioner. A copy of the petitioner’s Japan PCS orders will suffice. Once the Embassy receives this information, the petitioner will be scheduled for an appointment to formally submit the petition at the Embassy. Assuming the paperwork is in good order, the beneficiary will then undergo an immigrant visa interview during a separate appointment. The immigrant visa – which allows the beneficiary to enter the United States legally on a permanent basis – is typically approved and returned to the beneficiary within about one week of the interview. Service Members in Okinawa who wish to work with the Consulate General in Naha, should send the same information to NahaIV@state.gov.
The new blanket exception simplifies the process and dramatically shortens the time it takes to obtain an immigrant visa, which is welcome news for everyone involved. This change is the result of a concerted effort between U.S. Forces Japan legal assistance officers, the U.S. Department of State, and USCIS, all of whom are actively seeking to improve visa services for Service Members in Japan and around the world.
At present, this new exception applies only to active-duty military members in Japan on PCS orders. It does not apply to Department of Defense civilians and contractors or service members in Japan TAD. Those individuals can still make use of the “exceptional filing” process if they qualify. Such individuals should speak to their legal office about this and other options for expediting their applications.
Your military installation’s legal assistance office stands ready to assist you with this new process and any other questions regarding the immigration process. Consult your base directory for contact information. In Yokosuka, please call DSN 315-243-8901 for additional information.