Friday, December 23, 2011

E-3 Visa Renewal in Mexico City

To paraphrase Mark Twain, sorry to write such a long blog post, but I did not have time to write a short one. For the tl;dr crowd, yes it is is possible to renew your E3 visa in Mexico City and it is a viable alternative to going to Canada or back to Australia. The visa can be obtained in as little as 3 days, and the waiting times to schedule an appointment are short. Read on for more detail on the process and advice.

The purpose of this post is to share my experiences of an E-3 visa renewal in Mexico City. It is not my intention to go into detail on the process of getting an initial E-3 or how to find work in the US, I'll leave that to another blog post. There is plenty of information on initial E3 application on the official government sites. There is also a great how to from Geoff McQueen on his blog that covers the process from the entrepreneur's perspective. This is useful if you find yourself wanting to manage the entire process yourself without the support of a company sponsoring you or engaging an immigration lawyer. Willing to be proven wrong, but I do not believe it is possible to gain your initial E3 visa in Mexico City, or any other foreign port, unless you are currently residing in that country. Edit: Have confirmed that it is not possible to obtain an initial E3 in anything other than your country of residence or Australia.

Update 5th April 2016: The process has changed a little from what I outline below. Some of what I have written is still relevant, however it is now not possible to make the ASC appointment and the consulate appointment on consecutive days before you travel to Mexico. I recommend this blog, which details a more recent run to Mexico City to renew E-3:

Other recommended reading is Geoff McQueen's post on renewing in Vancouver, for those also considering this as an option:

One of the joys of being a, "non-resident alien", in the US of A, is having to leave the country for visa renewals. In the case of an E-3 visa, this must be done every two years or every change of employer. While on an E-3, leaving the country for renewal is unavoidable, so slap anyone that tells you otherwise. I have been in the US for nearly four years, so aside from my initial E3 visa, I have renewed my E-3 visa twice with my original US employer and twice more for with two new jobs, meaning I have had a total of five E-3 visas. To be technical, I have had one E-3 visa and four E-3R (R for returning). I could not face another 14 hour each way trip back to Australia, as I was doing this regularly for work and Qantas no longer fly direct to Sydney from SFO making it a painful trip via LAX (I'm a Qantas Platinum FF and only fly United to Australia as a last resort). Also with a young son in tow, the challenge of dealing with jet lag on a quick turnaround trip is not fun. Add to this the fact I was leaving a large company to work for a much smaller, series B funded, cash flow negative startup. Insisting they had to pay for three airline tickets back to Australia would have been a disincentive to them hiring me. I started to look for local options, and Canada was not a possibility (I will go in to this later). I decided to visit Mexico to get my new E-3 visa, but it turned out my tenure at the new company was short, (my choice and a long story). I then found myself in the situation of having to go back down to Mexico a 2nd time to get another new E-3 visa within a few weeks. This gives me a good perspective on the process and can hopefully provide some guidance people will find useful.

E-3 visa renewal with the same employer is relatively routine. It can be quite stressful when taking another position, particularly as in my case where I had already resigned from the old position without having my new visa in hand. You always have the small seed of doubt in the back of your mind, "what if I really screw this up and can't get back in to the US"?

Immigration Lawyers
One of the challenges with the E-3 visa, is that you get a variety of knowledge levels within the immigration lawyer community as to how the visa works. There are only 10,500 new E-3 visas available every year (renewals do not count in this quota), but there are actually only 2000-3000 new E-3 visas issued, so not even a third of the available pool. Compare this to the 65,000 H1-B visas issued every year and the fact that E-3 is still a relatively new classification (since 2005), and it is easy to understand why most immigration lawyers have far more H1-B experience. There are some similarities between E3 and H1-B, but enough differences that you should insist that your employer use an immigration lawyer that is familiar with the E-3 process. I've had some great lawyers and I have had one bad experience, so ask some probing questions to ensure your lawyers know their stuff. Message me if you would like recommendations within the Bay Area. Without any hard facts, my assumption is that the Bay Area is the destination where the large majority of E3 visa holders land, so you are more likely to get immigration lawyers with E-3 experience here. My bad experience happened to be with a lawyer in another state.

The Process

1. LCA (Labor Condition Application) Form ETA 9035E
2. Nonimmigrant Visa Applicaiton Form DS-160
3. Schedule Visa Appointment and Pay Fee
4. ASC (Applicant Service Center) Appointment
5. Consular Interview
6. Pick up passport and new visa
7. Fly back to the US

1. LCA (Labor Condition Application)

To renew a visa, you must present yourself at a US Embassy or Consulate for interview. This means leaving the US, as US Embassies and Consulates are by definition are on foreign soil. The first step in the process of renewal is to obtain an LCA from the Department of Labor. I am not super familiar with the mechanics of applying for an LCA, because I have worked for companies with immigration lawyers on retainer and a HR department that handle the paperwork. I do however know that the process used to be instant, but now can take several weeks. This is the stage at which they check that the company is paying the prevailing wage based on your job classification and that there is nothing preventing the company from hiring you. The LCA only has a validity of two years, so despite having an LCA with the initial E3, your visa expiration date will be no later than the LCA expiration date. Therefore, you need to balance getting the new LCA early enough prior to the end of your current visa to reduce stress, with not cutting months off your next visa by getting the LCA too early. Specifically how this can work is you apply for the renewal six months before the expiration of the current visa. If you get your new LCA six months early, the expiration date will be two years from the date of LCA issue, not two years from when you eventually front up to a consulate or from your previous visa expiration. So in an extreme case, by getting the LCA six months early, you are cheating yourself of six months of legal status. If your company is picking up the check, this may not be a huge concern, but I personally try and minimize my interactions with Uncle Sam. 

Within the LCA, there is an option for the "basis of the visa classification supported by this application". If you are staying with the same employer, this one is obvious. If changing employers, I found it simpler to just indicate option "a. new employment", rather than option "e. change in employer".

Alternative Path to Renewal
There is an alternative process called in country renewal. This is a complete misnomer that I will advise you against pursuing. Here the LCA is still obtained first, but then a I-129 - Petition for a nonimmigrant worker is lodged with UCSIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). The silly thing with this process is that you still need to leave the country to go to a consulate to get a new visa, so you gain nothing. This is one of the examples where the advice of the lawyers can be disregarded. I repeat, DO NOT follow this process, unless there is a pressing need for this to occur, especially if you are trying to change employer. I took this path as a result of some terrible advice from an immigration lawyer who had a lot of experience with H-1B where this is a mandatory step. However in the case of H-1B you can apply for expedited processing. This is not the case for E3, so effectively the application goes to UCSIS and they are relatively efficient at issuing a receipt, but then the application falls into a black hole with no visibility of where you are in the process. The Vermont Service Center is responsible for processing I-129 for E-3, so you can check the waiting times here. It currently indicates a two month processing time frame. It may come faster, but that is unlikely and if you call the service center they simply read a script that does not help in anyway. So in my case, I had accepted a new job offer, quit my previous job, then spent four weeks in limbo not able to work while I waited for the I-129 to come back. Technically on an E-3, if you are not employed you have 10 days to leave the country. In this case I had legal status as indicated by my I-94 (The white piece of paper they staple in your passport on entry), but was not maintaining status due to being on a visa linked to an employer who was no longer employing me. I'm pretty sure this was kosher, but it was still not a good situation. In the end I went against the advice of the immigration lawyers and just went down to Mexico to get the visa through the non I-129 path. It was a gamble but one that paid off, however I could certainly done without the stress and that much time not able to work. 

Piece of advice if you are unlucky enough to find yourself in this situation. When you are traveling to Mexico or Canada for a trip of less than 30 days, it is not a requirement to remove the I-94 from your passport. Insist to the airline that they leave this in your passport. My backup plan was that the original I-94 could be used for re-entry into the US. I am not sure how I could have honestly and legally answered the Customs and Border Patrol agents questions about my employment if re-entering without an existing I-94 or an updated visa, but thankfully it did not come to that.

2. Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form DS-160
All the paperwork for the visa renewals is filled out online, which makes it simpler, but there are a few pitfalls. You fill out the paperwork for the DS-160 here. You must have the LCA number from from ETA 9035E to complete the DS-160. The trap is that you also need to know which consulate you will appear at for an interview prior to filling out the form, as once submitted you can no longer make changes to the form. Here is where things get a little chicken and egg. You can not schedule an appointment until you have filled out form DS-160, but you can't fill out form DS-160 without knowing where you are going to attempt to schedule your appointment. I found this out the hard way. My original plan was to go to Vancouver as it is a short flight and a relatively cheap option. This decision was based on looking at the stated wait times on the Deparment of State website. I filled out my DS-160 with Vancouver selected as my preferred consulate, then went to book the appointment. Co-incidentally there is a separate instance of the appointment system used for Canadian visas, but still shares some of the same data with the Mexico system. It's administered by CSC, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Despite the Department of State website showing a two day wait for nonimmigrant visa appointments in Vancouver, the appointment system actually showed 28 days wait. All other consulates in Canada were around the same time frame, even up to 34 days until the next available appointment in some. You select the type of visa and where you currently reside as you make the appointment and this drives the response provided for wait times. I am not sure if this is a deliberate attempt to be a disincentive to non-Canadian, US based, nonimmigrant visa holders from using Canada for renewals rather than their home country, but still it was a big waste of time for me. 

So after filling the form out for a second time, there are three useful tips I can offer. Firstly, there is a point right at the end of process where you are reviewing the information entered. There is an option to save the application. Make sure you do this before submitting, because once submitted this option is no longer available. What this does is save a file to your computer containing your information that can then be loaded back in to the system rather than having to manually re-enter your information. The second tip I have to offer is regarding non Australian spouses. My wife is British, so after filling out the DS-160 for myself, I then need to fill it out for her. When I select British citizen, the system does not allow you to select spouse of an E-3 visa holder as an option. The logic in the system is broken, because the spouse of an E-3 visa holder can be any nationality and unlike a H-4 visa that is given to spouses of H1-B visas, they are entitled to work. The workaround is to select spouse of a treaty trader E-1 or E-2. The consulates are aware of this issue and it was not a problem given she was not the primary applicant. The third tip I have is regarding the previous visits to the US part of the form. I have probably entered and exited the US at least thirty times in the last four years, possibly more. It is clearly not practical to list every entry and exit. I just list the dates that my previous E-3s covered and no one has ever questioned this. The list all countries you have visited in the past five years is another fun section for me to fill out.

Once the form is submitted, you are given a page that shows your information and a bar code which you must print. As a rule when it comes to immigration paperwork, I also like to print it to pdf so I have an electronic copy saved. As of September 2011 when I last applied for an E3 renewal, the Mexico consulate did not require an electronic portrait photo or even for you to take a paper photo with you. The Canadian DS-160 process does require an electronic photo that is submitted with the DS-160. If you do need a digital photo, I recommend

3. Schedule Visa Appointment and Pay Fee
So here is where it gets interesting and a little different to how things are done at other consulates. You now need to book the appointment through the US Visa site specific to Mexico. Unlike Australia or Canada where you have a single appointment at the consulate, Mexico uses a two step process that must be completed on separate days. You first visit the Application Service Center (ASC) where your paperwork is checked and photo taken. For certain routine visas (not E-3), the ASC visit is all that is required. The second step is to visit the consulate for the visa interview. I only have experience with booking appointments to Mexico City, but in theory it should be possible to visit any consulate, however there are reasons you may want to choose Mexico City, that I will go in to later.

The site will direct you to chose the type of visa you are applying for. Luckily the system has the E-3 visa as an option. When I got my first E-3 in 2007, there was a paper form on which you had to hand write "E-3 visa". You then select Mexico City as the Consulate, enter your DS-160 number and are asked to select a DHL branch. I will also explain further down why this is not important. Unlike the Australian consulates, you do not need to bring a pre-paid envelope. The state you need to select is DF (Distrito Federal) the City Cuauhtemoc (A district of Mexico City) and the location I advise you to use is Sheraton Reforma, which is the hotel across the road from the consulate.

Why does the DHL location not matter?
The typical process is for the passports to be sent back to a DHL location for you to pickup. Both times I have visited, I have used the expedited process where you pick the passport up at 4:00PM the afternoon after your consulate appointment. In fact on the first trip I had not even booked the return flights yet because we were uncertain about the timing, but were offered expedited pickup so we could get home. I think the key here is to tell the consulate that you urgently need to be back in the US or that you have already booked your return flights. There is a risk that they may not grant your request for an expedited processing, but given they see so few E-3s, I was treated really well by the US consulate staff.

Now on to the next tricky part of the process, actually scheduling the interview. The visa fee needs to be paid prior to being able to see the calendar. It is now $390 for a visa. It was $150 when I got my first visa, but I guess when you have a product like a visa to enter the US, you can pretty much name your price.

As an aside, another tip I learned through my experience is that when negotiating a contract with a US employer, be very clear about what is included in the offer to meet immigration costs. They typically will not just cut you a check, because that would be a taxable benefit. Instead you have to claim for reimbursement and there is some unusual tax treatment of different things that are claimed. This may not be a problem if you are working for a big company like Google, but with the smaller guys that are a little more cost conscious, getting this wrong can end up costing you a great deal personally. At a minimum I would negotiate with your employer for flights to be paid for the whole family, for hotels, meals and local transport to be covered while in the country for renewal and all associated stamping and processing fees to be reimbursed. Make sure you discuss upfront that the same expectation is there for the two year renewal period. While you have your negotiating boots on, see if you can get them to cover car hire and rent for a period when you first arrive, as this is fairly standard when relocating a worker. At the least it will give you something that you can concede in further negotiations.

Once the fee is paid through the system via credit card, next it is necessary to schedule the appointments. The system forces you to book the consulate appointment before the service center, so it can be hard to get a date close to the time you are booking. As mentioned, despite the fact that these should theoretically be able to be completed same day, the system forces you to have them on separate days. There is no requirement for the appointments to be on subsequent days, but this is advisable if you are trying to minimize the time away. Both times I managed to do ASC on Wednesday, Consulate on Thursday, Pick up passports on Friday then head straight to the airport and fly home. This is cutting it close, with only a few hours between the pick up time and the last scheduled flights out of MEX. On one occasion the appointment system refused to play nice, so it is possible to call and have someone make the appointment for you. The number is 1-703-439-2313 and it is somewhere on the East Coast. The people on the phone were very friendly and helpful. In terms of what time to book your appointments, the first time we went for the earliest appointment of 8AM. Sadly the guy from the consulate we needed to meet with did not arrive until 10AM, so we had to kill two hours. The time for the ASC appointment does not matter as much, pick something that works for your schedule. Expect the ASC to take between 30-60 mins, Consulate to take around 90 mins and the pick up to take 10 mins. It may be more than this in peak times obviously. There is also the nervousness of the dash to the airport after picking up the passports. Not much margin for error. The system confirms your payment and ASC appointment via email, but me being paranoid I still print the screens showing the receipt number.

Why Mexico City?
This leads into why I would advise to chose the Mexico City consulate over other centers in Mexico. There was literally only one guy who dealt with E3 visas in Mexico City. This is why there was a delay in our appointment when we arrived before he did. I was only the third E3 he had ever processed. On the 2nd visit, he remembered me from a few weeks earlier and was actually training someone else in how to deal with the E3. Perhaps because I told him I was going to send all my friends to Mexico City for visa renewals in the future. So it is doubtful that other locations would have any knowledge or experience with E3 visas.

My tendency has been to print everything and take it all just in case. The documentation checklist is as follows

1. Passport - Check the validity, as I am pretty sure that a passport with less than 2 years validity is going to be a problem with getting a 2 year visa
2. Original copies of LCA
3. DS-160 with the bar code
4. Signed job offer letter
5. Visa fee receipt
6. ASC appointment confirmation

These are the core documents that have actually been called for on my previous E3 renewals. The non core documents that may have been used for the first application but not since I take with me on a just in case basis:

7. Original copies of degree certificates and transcripts
8. Educational Equivalency Certificate - States your Australian degrees are functionally equivalent to US degrees. Provided by a company called Trustforte Corporation for my first E3 application.
9. Bank Statements
10. Pay slips
11. Original Wedding Certificate
12. Previous LCAs

4. ASC (Applicant Service Center) Appointment
This is relatively routine. Here is a link to the Google Maps location and the address is Hamburgo #213, Colonia Juarez, Cuauhtémoc. If you check out the Street View, you will have no problem spotting this building. The first step is to speak to one of the staff in front of the building to have them check your paperwork. They are likely to be wearing CSC shirts and will want to see paper evidence that you have an appointment. They will direct you to the security desk inside the building, who will check the documents again. You will be directed to which line to sit in to wait for your interview. You get called up to the interview window one at a time to be fingerprinted and photographed. There was no issue in taking a child in a stroller with us to the ASC.

5. Consular Interview
Street view is of really no help here in working out where you need to go within the embassy, as the photo is out of date.

View Larger Map

You do not enter through the front of the embassy on Paseo de La Reforma. The map shows the rough location of where to enter which is a set of gates where cars also enter. That block of Rio Danubio is completely blocked off now and used as a car park and staging area for people visiting the consulate. It is heavily guarded with plenty of machine gun wielding security guards. There will possibly be a line of people along the footpath waiting to enter. It is worth getting the attention of one of the consular officials to let them know you are on an E3 visa, as they will process you slightly differently. Once through the gate, you will be directed to sit on some benches and wait. This waiting area is a covered corrugated iron shelter, but still very exposed to the elements. Dress accordingly. We visited in August and at 8 in the morning it was freezing.

The visa process has two steps. First the local employees verifies your identity and makes sure everything is entered correctly in the system. They then pass you over to a US consulate employee, who is a US citizen and interviews you from behind bullet proof glass. Here is where being on an E-3 and applying in Mexico City has its benefits. You are basically waiting for someone to go inside and get the "E3 guy", who will come out and greet you, then escort you through security past all the lines. The security is not as full on as an airport, but still worth taking a minimal amount of items with you. Leave the phones and jewelry at home. We took a young child and a stroller with milk, water, snacks and toys and they had no issue with this. Our son is a US citizen, so maybe it is his birthright to enter a US consulate. Once through security, the E3 guy will confirm your identity and make sure everything is entered in the system correctly. He will then take you straight to the front of the queue for a visa interview with the consular official behind bullet proof glass who will approve or deny your application. Compared to what the locals appear to have to go through, this is red carpet treatment. Imagine a less efficient, busier version of the DMV and you will get some idea of what to expect.

What questions will I be asked in my visa interview?
So I obviously can not answer that with any authority other than to state what I have been asked in the past. Despite all the official sites making a big deal about having to show ties to Australia, I have not once had this come up. I think inherent in having a job offer letter that states your period of employment is two years and your LCA only being valid for that period, they assume your ability to stay beyond two years without renewal is nil. So the regular questions are as follows:

1. What company are you working for?
2. What do they do?
3. What will you be doing for them?
4. What makes you qualified to do this job?

My wife has simply been asked whether she intends to work. She has an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) that allows her to work, so they are just wanting to check to make sure you are not intending for your spouse to work without the right documentation.

If everything goes smoothly, you will be told your visa is approved and they will hold on to your paperwork and passport to process.

6. Pick up passport and new visa
As mentioned previously, I have been provided with expedited processing that involves picking up the passport the next day directly from the embassy. I believe this is at the discretion of the consular official, so not sure if we got lucky or if they routinely do this if you ask nicely. The alternative of waiting for a DHL package taking a week to show up is not appealing. You will be given a small purple tag to bring back the next day and to wait for your passport. There is one ticket for each passport, but only one person needs to go for the collection. You enter in the same location and wait on the same benches outside. There is no security screening like there is for entering the consulate. They will eventually start calling up groups based on the color of your slip. If you are like me and have an impending flight, worth making sure you go first and also worth having all your stuff back at the hotel ready to jump in a car as soon as you are done. Once called, you line up near the door to the consulate. They have a counter and they will hand the passports back to you. Make sure to grab your original LCA. This was missing for one of my collections and it is very important, so I had to send them to find it. My poor Spanglish didn't pick up when they called for visa E, which sounds a lot like they are saying visa A, so listen out for that.

Other Stuff

So that covers the overall process, but there are a few other things which didn't really fit into any category of the process, so I will list them here.

Where should I stay?
That depends on what you like to do with your spare time. I've made the transition to crotchety old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn while shaking his zimmer frame at them, so this means I chose the least adventurous option. With a one year old with us, the convenience factor is more important than the cultural experience, so we took the approach of staying in the 5 star hotels near the embassy. The Sheraton is the most convenient as it is literally next door to the embassy and a short walk to the ASC, but it is a little run down. It has a pool on the roof which is small, but kind of a nice view of the sprawl that is Mexico City. The Four Seasons is much nicer, with a lovely courtyard, garden and fountains, but it is a little further away from both the ASC and the embassy. Next time I will try the Marriott, as it was conveniently located and looked nice. Traffic is bad in Mexico City, so staying close is advisable. Otherwise aim to get there very early. The Sheraton has lots of small restaurants and there is a Starbucks on Paseo de La Reforma that can be used to kill time. Other general hotel advice is to not drink the local water, even if it is claimed to be treated. Find the nearest 7/11 and buy a few large bottles. Also avoid ice in drinks and eating salads, as they usually will have been washed in the local water.

Will I be safe?
I have travelled to Mexico for business for years and never had any issues. The area around the embassy is probably the most over-policed square kilometer in all of Mexico. Police cars in Mexico drive around with their lights on even if there is nothing wrong, something I've categorized as the "everything's ok lights". You will see lots of security at the hotel and official buildings and constant police presence. I feel quite safe in this area with my family, but usual common sense applies. Don't wander around late at night and don't wear any jewelry. It is difficult to blend in and look like a local, but it is possible to at least not look like a tourist. The locals tend to always wear long pants and closed shoes, so wearing shorts and flip flops will make you immediately look like a holiday maker. There are reported cases of smash and grab style kidnappings where business people are taken to ATMs and made to withdraw cash. I think the key is just to keep your wits about you and be aware of your surroundings. It is also advisable to not catch local taxis, take only transport arranged through your hotel. The 5 star hotels are the safest route. What I like to call reassuringly expensive. Taylor Lautner was staying at the Four Seasons when we were there to provide some idea of the type of security you could expect. Now for the more adventurous, I am sure there are far more exciting options available, so would be interested to hear about your experiences.

Will I have trouble communicating if I don't speak Spanish?
The quality of English varies widely. Hotels and the consular staff and other general staff at the embassy and ASC speak excellent English. The security guards barely speak a word of English, so usually you get by with pointing to your documents. Depending on the store or restaurant you go to, you can not always assume they will speak English, but it is usually possible to get by with gestures.

Again, apologies for the length of this post, but I hope you are able to get some utility from it. Feel free to post any questions you may have in the comments section.

My Other Immigration Posts:
E-3 Visa to Green Card for Australians
How can an Australian get a job in the USA?