How COVID-19 Has Changed Immigration

Coffee BreakJune 2020 Issue

COVID-19 has brought monumental changes at break-neck speed, affecting seemingly every aspect of our lives. The U.S. immigration system is no exception, as the pandemic has forced the federal departments and agencies that carry out our immigration laws to make significant adjustments.  Here are some of the most notable immigration-related developments in response to the pandemic, as well as their impact on U.S. businesses.

Restricting Travel And Immigration

Shortly after the U.S. reported its first COVID-19 case in January 2020, the federal government implemented a series of travel and immigration restrictions that grounded flights, closed borders and otherwise derailed countless individuals’ plans to come to the U.S.

A series of presidential proclamations issued between late January and mid-March prohibits entry into the U.S. by travelers who have visited certain countries – China, Iran, Ireland, the U.K. and the 26 European “Schengen Area” countries – in the 14 days preceding their attempted entry.  These restrictions generally exempt U.S. citizens (USCs), lawful permanent residents (LPRs), certain family members of USCs and LPRs, and other limited categories of people.

On March 18, the State Department announced the immediate suspension of routine nonimmigrant and immigrant visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide.  As of now, no reopen date has been set.  The consulates continue to process visa applications for medical personnel and H-2 visa agricultural workers, as well as in other extremely limited emergent circumstances.

On March 20, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced joint initiatives with Mexico and Canada to suspend for 30 days all “non-essential” travel (primarily tourist or recreational travel) by land across the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders.  These initiatives were renewed in mid-April for an additional 30 days.  Essential travel for commerce and trade is not affected by the closures.

On April 22, President Trump signed a “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market.”  Despite the sweeping language of its title, the proclamation is actually limited in scope: it sets only a 60-day pause on entry by foreign nationals who are outside the U.S. and do not yet possess a valid immigrant visa; and it grants numerous exemptions, including for healthcare professionals and for spouses and children of USCs.  However, the order also calls for further review by DHS (in consultation with the Secretaries of State and Labor), and allows for extension or modification of the suspension based on the departments’ findings.

These severe travel limitations, which were enacted with little to no advance notice, undoubtedly have hindered any businesses that engage regularly with any of the affected countries.  Additionally, foreign nationals within the U.S. may find themselves unable to leave the country and in need of extensions of their U.S. immigration status.  Finally, those who were caught outside of the U.S., particularly those requiring a new visa in order to enter, may not be able to return for the foreseeable future, leaving their employers scrambling.

Limiting In-person Services

In keeping with social distancing recommendations, the U.S. immigration agencies have taken extraordinary measures to cut down on public interaction as much as possible.  Of particular note to employers, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on March 18 that it was cancelling all in-person services at its field offices, including green card interviews, naturalization oath ceremonies, and biometrics appointments.  USCIS offices are currently scheduled to remain closed to the public through June 3.

Thankfully, USCIS’s regional service centers, which adjudicate the majority of immigration benefit filings, have continued to accept and process submissions.  However, given that green card and naturalization cases generally cannot be approved without an interview at a local field office, the cancellation of these services is creating significant delays for these matters, which are already subject to excessively long processing times.

Making Accommodations

The departments and agencies involved in immigration have all made policy changes that acknowledge the logistical difficulties faced by employers and employees dealing with varying shelter-in-place restrictions and work-from-home arrangements, while also facilitating the necessary compliance actions that must be undertaken even during a pandemic.  To note just a few examples:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is currently accepting filings with photocopied signature pages.  The agency also has extended deadlines for responding to requests for evidence and submitting appeals following denials, and has waived biometrics capture requirements in certain circumstances.

The Department of Homeland Security temporarily relaxed its requirement that I-9 document inspection be completed in the physical presence of the new employee, allowing for remote verification.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, it is expected that the country’s immigration system, like the rest of the country, will continue to adapt as best it can in the face of unprecedented circumstances.

Joe Gloski is a resident of Bourne and a senior attorney at Chin & Curtis, a business immigration law firm in Boston. For more information, visit www.chincurtis.com

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