Success comes with a cost

The Immigration and Naturalization Service may be infamous for its lost paperwork, frustrating delays and dysfunctional databases, but there is at least one INS e-service that promises prompt performance.

INS guarantees that the Premium Processing Service will process applications for nonimmigrant worker visas within 15 days. There is a dedicated phone number to call to ask questions about applications and e-mail notification when visa decisions are final. But like most premium services, Premium Processing will cost you extra.

INS charges $1,000 per application for the speedy service.

It's a surprisingly businesslike operation for a government agency. Like many private-sector businesses offering pricey services, INS promises to refund the fee if it fails to meet the 15-day deadline.

"It works quite well," said Elizabeth Stern, an immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C. Premium Processing shows that even "in its current state, the INS is capable of implementing a program where there is electronic notification and where a deadline is being met," she said.

But Carl Shusterman, a former INS employee who is now an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, disagreed and said that he rarely uses the service.

True enough, INS responds within 15 days, he said, but usually the response is a request for more information. That satisfies the response requirement and enables INS to keep the $1,000, but it doesn't help visa applicants. The requests for more information typically delay visa processing for several months, making it no faster than submitting a standard application, Shusterman said.

Congress approved Premium Processing in December 2000, and INS began offering the service in June 2001.

The service is aimed chiefly at businesses that are hiring foreign workers — seeking H-1B visas for technology workers, for example — and are willing to pay $1,000 per employee to have visa processing wrapped up in 15 days instead of the three to six months it typically takes, Stern said.

Initially, the premium price for Premium Processing also raised questions among immigration specialists about the fairness of offering a better service for those with the money to pay for it.

"Why should we have to pay $1,000 to get services we are supposed to get for free?" Stern asked.

Shusterman said he, too, worried that the program might create "a permanent two-tiered system" in which those with $1,000 to spend could get deluxe service while those without would continue to wait months or even years for their applications to be processed.

However, that hasn't happened, he said. Despite paying the premium, processing usually continues to take months, he said.

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