By Emmanuel Olawale, Esq.
The Corona virus pandemic has affected United States immigration in several ways, and it has led to adjustments in immigration filing process and adjudication. The pandemic has caused travel restrictions to and from the United States and invariably caused travelers to get stranded within the United States and some U.S. citizens to get stranded abroad.
The president signed an Executive Order with new restrictions on legal immigration on April 23, 2020. The Executive Order will restrict the issuance of visas to some people for sixty days while exempting seasonal foreign agricultural workers, health workers and immediate relative of United States citizens. The order does not affect the status of immigrants already in the United States and does not affect those with pending cases. As it is, almost all immigration flow into the United States has been suspended as a result of the pandemic since most U.S. embassies and consulates have stopped issuing visas.
The restrictions in the new Executive Order were meant to curb the spread of COVID19 and to protect American workers from foreign competition, according to the president’s tweet. These reasons sound hollow and pretextual considering the fact that the United States has the most confirmed cases of COVID19 and the highest COVID19 recorded deaths in the world, and more than 28 million documented American residents have filed for unemployment benefits within the last four weeks.
The Executive Order is another medicine in search of non-existent ailments. It is nothing but a clarion call to the president’s political base in an election year and a political diversion from the administration’s snail-pace response to the pandemic. Immigration restrictions and immigrants have become the fodder for the administration whenever it needs to divert attention or exert its political muscles.
Prior to the new restrictions, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices have closed all field offices until May 4, 2020. This is subject to extension depending on the pandemic and the safety guidelines. All interviews and biometrics appointments have been canceled and applicants will receive new appointment notices when the offices reopen.
However, the USCIS is still accepting new applications. Applicants can file some applications online at www.USCIS.GOV or send their applications by mail to the appropriate service centers.
USCIS is also still processing applications and petitions that do not require interviews. For instance, they are still approving applications and petitions of applicants who have met their burden of proof, even without interviews. It is also approving the applications of those who have completed their interviews before the closure and have submitted all evidence to establish their cases.
Additionally, the USCIS is still denying applications of those who have not established their cases and still issuing Notices of Intent to Deny (NOID) and Requests For Evidence (RFE). However, applicants and petitioners have 60 days to respond to NOIDs and RFEs dated between March 1, 2020 and May 1, 2020, instead of the regular 30 days.
In spite of the closure, applicants can still file Motions for Reconsideration and Motions to Re-open with the USCIS. They can also file appeals with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
In order to accommodate applicants who are working remotely with their attorneys, USCIS is accepting reproduced or copied signatures. However, applicants should keep the original signed documents and be ready to produce them when requested.
For those seeking to naturalize and who have completed their interviews and have been approved for naturalization, they will have to wait until the field offices and federal district courts are fully reopened to become U.S. citizens because USCIS has suspended all naturalization ceremonies.
Most immigration courts are opened for limited cases. To check whether the immigration court in your jurisdiction is completely closed or open for limited cases, visit https://www.justice.gov/eoir/eoir-operational-status-during-coronavirus-pandemic.
For courts that are open for limited cases, they are only conducting hearings for people in immigration detention. All hearings scheduled for April through May 15, 2020 for people who are not in detention have been postponed.
Nevertheless, the immigration courts are still open for filings. Motions and pleadings can be filed by mail, email, at the clerks’ office or online (where available).
Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) has suspended the apprehension of undocumented immigrants to protect ICE officers from contracting the virus.
Foreign visitors or visa holders who are currently stranded in the United States as a result of the pandemic can apply for Extension of Status or Change of Status. USCIS will consider COVID19 as extraordinary circumstances that caused the overstay or late filing of the application if the applicant filed after their authorized stay has expired.
Finally, the U.S. Department of State has stopped processing new U.S. passports or passport renewals except for emergency situations that could be described as one involving “life and death.”
As we continue to deal with the pandemic, it is important to recognize that there are many immigrant doctors, nurses, health workers and other essential workers on the front lines every day saving lives and fighting aggressively to protect us from COVID19 in spite of the administration’s hardline immigration policy.
(Emmanuel Olawale, Esq. is the owner of The Olawale Law Firm and the author of “The Flavor of Favor: Quest for the American Dream. A Memoir,” and “Starting & Growing a Law Practice without Breaking the Bank.” He can be reached at 614-772-4177 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)