In response to the current public health crisis, various government offices and courts have temporarily closed in an effort to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. These announcements leave many immigrants and non-immigrants with questions and concerns about their immigration status.
Our immigration system requires strict compliance with rules and deadlines associated with filings, renewals, timely departures, appearance at scheduled appointments and hearings, etc. Failure to follow the rules can often result in severe penalties. While the concern for public health safety must take priority, many individuals are simultaneously living in fear with respect to their ability to stay in status, maintain work authorization and/or return to the United States after departure, among other issues.
The Department of Justice responded to the COVID-19 outbreak by postponing mass non-detained master calendar hearings in immigration courts through April 10. All other immigration court hearings will proceed. However, some immigration courts have temporary closed altogether. The quickly growing list of closures include certain immigration courts in Seattle, Sacramento, Newark, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Louisville, Memphis and Houston. The Department of Justice website is updating the operational status of each immigration court during the pandemic.
The Department of Justice is currently facing mounting pressure from lawyers, judges and staff to temporarily close all courts. An attorney who appeared in the Atlanta immigration court on Monday has reported testing positive for COVID-19, and a Denver immigration judge is reportedly home sick with symptoms of the virus.
U.S. Embassies and Consulates
Many consular posts have begun notifying applicants of reduced or temporarily suspended visa services. The Department of State has compiled a list of embassy websites for country-specific information. In some cases, information concerning a reduction or temporary suspension of visa services can be found on these pages.
Regardless of whether visa services are still available, many foreign nationals find themselves trapped abroad due to the President’s proclamations regarding suspended travel from China, Iran, the U.K., Ireland and the 26 European countries that comprise the Schengen free travel zone.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has suspended routine in-person services until at least April 1 but otherwise remains open to continue accepting and processing applications and petitions. Moreover, USCIS will provide emergency appointments for limited situations. Applicants and petitioners with scheduled appointments, interviews or naturalization ceremonies impacted by the closure will receive notices, and they will automatically be rescheduled when USCIS resumes normal operations.
As most individuals have transitioned to working from home in adherence with current public health protocols, an immediate concern for some individuals is how they will be able to meet filing deadlines for paper petitions and applications that require an original signature. For example, requests for an extension of nonimmigrant status cannot simply be filed online. These requests have now become increasingly necessary for many nonimmigrants who cannot return home because their home country has prohibited the travel or because they have been ordered to quarantine. On March 16, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) issued a letter to USCIS in an effort to suggest a number of proactive measures that can be adopted to protect individuals from accruing unlawful presence.
Many individuals are also anxious because there is no provision under U.S. law to extend the stay of a foreign national admitted under the VWP/ESTA program. Those who find themselves unable to depart may be granted an extension for up to 30 days by submitting a request for satisfactory departure. These requests are generally adjudicated by USCIS, but CBP may adjudicate these requests in extenuating circumstances.
Another pressing concern is that the timing of the global pandemic overlaps with one of the busiest times of the year for immigration lawyers as they prepare for the H-1B lottery selection that will take place later this month. At this time, the lottery is still scheduled to move forward according to its original timeline, though premium processing will be temporarily suspended. AILA has requested that USCIS extend the H-1B electronic registration process and expand the H-1B petition filing window in consideration of the substantial disruption to registrants and attorneys caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. The immigration legal community is anxiously awaiting further guidance from USCIS on these issues.