Immigration and Coronavirus Update

United States immigration is dramatically impacted by the coronavirus, just like everything else. We now have continental travel bans, consulate closures, and severely restricted activities for cross-border business. Things are changing by the hour. I’ve put together a list below of several important immigration restrictions, as well as a few other considerations. 

While so much is closed, we are not. Indeed, we are busy. We continue to hold consultations over the phone and via other means of communication. We routinely assist clients remotely. Feel free to call our office (360-671-5945, to set up a time.

There is a lot of uncertainty out there right now. I expect things will find some new normal in the coming weeks. When they do, petitioners will want to be first in line to have their immigration applications addressed, as there will be backlogs for the different agencies to deal with.  Processes that formerly took a month may take much longer, as the agencies play catch-up. Also, as a reminder, we have until noon on March 20th to enter applicants into the annual H-1B lottery for professionals.

This is also a time to advocate for the improving the U.S. immigration system, particularly in the area of health care. Right now, our health care system could benefit from having more doctors, nurses, and other health care professionally, particularly in underserved communities. Health care systems also rely on other professionals, such as IT experts, researchers, and telemedicine specialists. I am participating in groups who are advocating for changes in immigration laws that can help underserved communities.

Here is a brief summary of the changes in the past week or two:

  • U.S. consulates around the world are closing or altering their services. Yesterday, the U.S. consulates in Canada announced they are halting all “routine” nonimmigrant visa appointments for now. Appointments may not be available for some time. When things open up again, I expect there will be heavy demand, created by the stoppage. Many other U.S. consulates have similar stoppages, including in Mexico, India, and Spain, to name a few major ones.
  • In a historic move, the President announced a National Emergency, extended travel bans to the greater part of Europe, and subsequently to the United Kingdom and Ireland.  The travel restrictions have exceptions, and do not apply to U.S. citizens, although U.S. citizens should self-quarantine upon return.  Earlier proclamations barred persons from certain parts of China and Iran.  The links to each proclamation posted here include details on the full extent of the bans, as well as the exceptions.
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada announced this week that it is closing its border to foreign travelers. U.S. citizens are exempted, “for now.”  Canadians are also advised to not travel abroad, and to self-quarantine upon return if they do.  The U.S. Department of State also has a Level 3 Travel Advisory advising Americans to reconsider foreign travel.  The travel warnings and border closures will inevitably add to the economic woes created by the coronavirus. These actions obviously impact cross-border business and cross-border family relationships. Sometimes parole (special permission) is available, sometimes travel is only restricted, and sometimes there are exceptions. For example, the Ministry of Health of British Columbia has issued a specific clarification for cross-border commuters in health care to provide direct medical care, unless they have traveled to Hubei Province of China, Italy, or Iran. Difficult times, nonetheless.
  • Courts are shutting down or limiting activities.  The Seattle Immigration Court posted a sign that they are not conducting hearings until at least April. The Western District Court of Washington, the Washington State Supreme Court, and many others are limiting activities to non- in-person activities.  Some announcements are made by Twitter; others are posted to websites. Others have been slower to follow suit, but all seem to be dealing with the Covid-19 issues presented with gatherings. A jury pool of 12 is automatically more than the recommended groups of 10 or less, and so on.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has announced that the new public charge rule will not apply to persons who seek testing related to Covid-19.  The new public charge rule is a sweeping change of business for USCIS, requiring immigrants and nonimmigrants in some cases to provide proof that they have not used public benefits int the U.S., and that they are not likely to do so. The rule has created fear for immigrants to seek necessary health services, and this point of clarity is good, as preventing the spread of the coronavirus needs to be the preeminent social concern.
  • USCIS Field Office activities have been limited by temporary closures and appointment rescheduling. I expect we’ll see more closures in the weeks ahead, which would means delayed adjustments of status and naturalization appointments, to name a couple things. I think it is fair to anticipate even further delays in Service Center processing in the weeks ahead.
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is moving to a call-in basis for check-ins, instead of the usual in-person meetings in Tukwila. The agency continues to conduct removal activities, but has affirmatively said it will not conduct such activities at hospitals, absent extraordinary circumstances. Family visitation at detention center is curtailed, but attorneys may still see clients, subject to restrictions.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project have filed suit against ICE and GEO, the company that runs detention centers, to seek relief for vulnerable persons who are in detention. There is concern about the rapid spread of Covid-19 among detention populations, where persons cannot self-isolate. There are reports that GEO and ICE are not taking adequate precautions to limit the spread of the disease.
  • Some, including myself, are pushing for immigration reforms and discretion to allow for greater access to foreign health care workers, including physicians, nurses, and researchers. Many things can be done, such as issuing employment authorization documents to qualified individuals;  approving additional work activities for physicians who are limited by their visa rules; expanding use of free trade agreements; exercising parole authority; and expediting H-1B applications.  Some things can be done at the agency level; other actions require Congressional action. 
  • Several things seem to be happening with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Travelers from certain parts of China, Europe and Iran are routed to specific airports. Enhanced screening is occurring at some airports, although there seems to be a great deal of variance in the degree of scrutiny travelers are receiving. The agency is working on a “satisfactory departure” allowance for persons who have to overstay their 90 day visa waiver stay (ESTA), so that persons will not lose their ability to use the program.
  • The NEXUS office in Birch Bay (near Blaine) is closed until further notice, as presumably are other walk-in offices for trusted traveler programs.
  • The increase of remote work also has brought focus to immigration compliance concerns. These include in person verification of work authorization for I-9s, which may require designation of someone other than the typical Human Resources specialist to complete the task. H-1B professionals are restricted to the work sites designated on the certified labor condition applications, and so in some cases amended H-1Bs may be necessary. F-1 students are supposed to study on campus, but universities are turning to remote learning. Such deviations from the norm for visa holders are being looked at by the agencies in most cases, but warrant care, due to the rigid nature of immigration regulation and law.

I’m happy to discuss any of the points above, as there is a lot more to say on each one. As always, we do our best to make things as transparent and predictable as possible.

All our best wishes to you and yours, and especially the best of health, as we navigate these difficult times.