Facing difficulty in meeting the 15-day commitment to review Premium Processing requests for I-129 and I-140 petitions, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) halted the service on March 20, 2020. Ironically, since then, processing times for many H and L visa petitions have gone from several months to just a few weeks. Employers welcome the faster service and are happy not to have to fork over an extra $1,440 for Premium Processing. Paying the enhanced fee requires USCIS to issue an approval, denial or so-called Request for Evidence within 15 calendar days. If USCIS asks for more evidence (typically documents and information about the employee’s job duties), a new 15-day clock begins for final adjudication once it receives the employer’s response.
While it’s certainly understandable that the Covid-19 pandemic and related stay- and work-from-home requirements make processing petitions in guaranteed timeframes difficult, a report from earlier this year reveals how much revenue USCIS is forgoing in putting the brakes on Premium Processing. For the fiscal year 2019, which ended September 30, 2019, there were 386,313 requests for Premium Processing of I-129 petitions (E, H, L, O work visas) and I-140 petitions (employment-based green card sponsorship). That translates into roughly $556 million in fees. The H-1B petition count alone was 256,913 for about $370 million in Premium Processing fees.
One would think that USCIS could find a way to avoid leaving this money on the table. Many adjudications officers already work from home. It therefore could be the logistics of the intake procedures at the service centers that receive the petitions and then assign them to the officers that creates a challenge. There have been some Covid-19-based scares that halted service center operations briefly. There could be more.
When USCIS last increased filing fees several years ago (a new fee increase regulation has been under review since late 2019), it commented on the extraordinary profitability of the Premium Processing program and the benefit of being authorized to use those fees for other programs. Under this Rob-From-Peter-To-Pay-Paul reasoning, it seems that USCIS would be eager to get this cash cow back in business. In the meantime, however, as long as processing times continue to improve, employers can find something more useful to do with the $1,440 they otherwise would have spent on Premium Processing.