Our paperwork landed in Chicago and a few days later we received what is known as 'Notice of Action 1', or an I-797C, which is basically a notification to say USCIS received our inch-thick petition pack and forwarded it onto a Service Center for processing.
So now we wait.
But we can spin it rather nicely and say that the petition is on its way; it's just taking a slow, scenic roadtrip across America. USCIS has sent our little package from Chicago to California, where one of the four visa services is located (the other three are Vermont, Nebraska and Texas). As Pennsylvania is closer to Vermont we were a little surprised, so purely out of curiosity, and while our petition is rocking its Hollywood lifestyle, I tried to find out the difference between the four locations. Some Service Centers don't process petitions for all visa types (immigrant/non-immigrant/work/family/asylum/tourist and all their various subsections right to 'potential entrepreneur'), but usually petitions are distributed according to geography. Sometimes, though, they are sent elsewhere to ease the processing burden on a particular centre if they are busy or backlogged. I guess that's it.
For example late last year about 36,000 petitions were re-routed from CA to TX to clear backlogs at the CA Service Center. The measure failed when TX couldn't handle them all and they were sent back to CA. This resulted in huge delays for the poor petitioners and beneficiaries who had to wait helplessly as their paperwork was shifted from state to state with little to control its whereabouts in the system. 36,000 relationships were put on hold, while other petitions that hadn't been re-routed were processed in ordinary due course.
And another example: shortly after the Haitian earthquake in January last year the USA allowed Haitian citizens in the USA to apply for "Temporary Protected Status" (TPS). This status, while not an immigration status or a route to immigration, is a kind of visa or temporary asylum status allowing recipients to stay (and work) in the USA for a set period of time, while it's deemed unsafe for them to return to their home country. It's previously been offered to other nationalities such as to Hondurans and Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and is available to Sudanese citizens as well. I have read accounts (mostly at Visa Journey) that most of the Haiti TPS applications were sent to the Vermont Service Center, though it's unclear if that resulted in an actual slow down in processing in Vermont. Regardless, there was a cut off point for TPS applications for Haitians, and most (if not all) have been processed now.
The Arab spring and the earthquake in Japan, similarly to the situation in Haiti, could also theoretically affect US visa processing times, although USCIS monitors these events and tries to pre-empt potential fluxes in visa applications.
The good news is that California is currently on target and processing petitions in about 5 months. We can even track down the approximate week when we should expect to be contacted next. Visa Journey is a clever and supremely useful site that allows immigrants to enter in their key petition/application dates and compare them to others in similar situations and at similar stages of the process. As more people enter in data the site updates the average waiting times and the likely date of our next milestone.
At this stage, according to the VJ timeline, we should hear again from USCIS in October. If all goes well in October we'll be able to put in an actual visa application and will have a new set of forms to fill out and another 5 or so months to wait (more on that later). However, things can change, and with July/August being popular wedding months I wouldn't be surprised if things slowed down again towards the end of summer, but we can only wait and see.
According to USCIS, 1 million people become US permanent residents every year. That's a simple average of 83,333 a month. If, theoretically, each Service Center had an equal part in processing 1 million petitions (and I know the number of petitions will be higher than the number of approvals/visa applications), then mine would have been joined by 19,999 other petitions sent to California in June. Obviously these numbers are flawed. That 1 million is only those who have been approved, so there will be many more petitions to account for, as well as peaks and troughs within a yearly cycle. I can only presume July/August/September is busy post weddings, but this isn't even to mention the visa burdens experienced by Service Centers for any of the many other visa types available. My very rough uneducated guess is that mine could be one of almost 100,000 envelopes that landed on a desk in California in June. And with that in mind, a 5 month wait for an email would not seem unreasonable at all, really.
And so we wait.