COVID-19 and US immigration changes
The spread of the Covid-19 virus throughout the world has caused massive changes in the ways that people are living and conducting business. US immigration is no exception. Below are some of the ways that Covid-19 has changed US immigration law:
Are The Consulates Open?
Most US embassies and consulates have closed to the public. They have cancelled interviews that were already scheduled. If you were issued an immigrant visa, were not able to travel to the United States due to the virus, and your immigrant visa has expired, the consulate can reprint your visa when travel restrictions have been lifted. The US State Department has created this helpful website which provides country-specific information regarding Covid-19’s impact and services available.
The National Visa Center has also reduced staff during the outbreak, so its response times have slowed down. The National Visa Center processes preliminary paperwork for family-based visas before forwarding completed applications to the various United Sates embassies and consulates throughout the world.
Like the embassies and consulates, USCIS has postponed all in-person interviews. If your in-person interview at USCIS was cancelled due to the pandemic, you will receive a new interview notice from USCIS when your local office has reopened.
USCIS has also offered certain accommodations to immigrant applicants due to the pandemic. USCIS normally requires original, wet-ink, signatures on most of its applications. It has temporarily lifted this requirement and is allowing scans of original signatures on many of its forms. If you are sending immigration forms to your attorney, you can sign the form by hand and then upload a scanned copy of the form with your signature into your lawyer’s online storage platform. That way the attorney can download a copy, print and mail your form to USCIS while practicing “social distancing”.
Requests For Evidence
Another accommodation that USCIS has offered is a sixty-day extension on the time to respond to a Request For Evidence. If you received a Request For Evidence between March 1, 2020 and May 1, 2020, USCIS will give you an additional sixty calendar days to respond to the Request. For example, if you received a Request For Evidence dated March 2, 2020 and that Request gave you until May 28, 2020 to respond, you now have until July 27, 2020 to respond.
USCIS has closed its Application Support Centers as of March 18, 2020 and suspended operations. The Application Support Centers are responsible for obtaining your biometric information. Normally, each time you apply for an employment authorization document you would appear at an Applications Support Center in person and have your fingerprints and photograph taken. USCIS would then use the fingerprint and photograph to run a background check on you. Due to the pandemic USCIS has changed its policy on biometrics. Currently, if you apply to extend your employment authorization document using a form I-765, USCIS will use your biometrics that they have on file from your previous employment authorization document filing.
Under normal circumstances an immigrant is required to apply for an extension or change of their nonimmigrant status prior to the current status expiring. For example, if your current H-1B status expires on May 1, 2020, you would need to file for your extension of H-1B status prior to May 1, 2020. USCIS has stated that it will allow late applications if the delay was due to Covid-19. The length of delay needs to be commensurate with the circumstances and you need to provide evidence to support why your application filing was delayed.
F-1 students employment authorization
If you are a student in F-1 status and suffering severe economic hardship due to unforeseen circumstances, you may be able to apply for off-campus employment authorization. Examples of unforeseen circumstances include:
- Loss of financial aid or on-campus employment (through no fault of your own);
- Substantial fluctuations in currency value or exchange rate;
- Inordinate increases in tuition or living costs;
- Unexpected changes in the financial condition of your source of support;
- Medical bills; and
- Other substantial and unexpected expenses.
In order to apply for off-campus employment in this situation you would need to file a Form I-765 and include a copy of your I-20 form along with supporting materials to USCIS. The I-20 must also include the employment page completed by your Designated School Official, certifying your eligibility for off-campus employment due to severe economic hardship caused by unforeseen circumstances beyond your control.
Disclaimer: This blog post was written on April 17, 2020. The information above was current as of the date that the post was written. USCIS and State Department policies change frequently under normal circumstances. They are sure to change even more frequently during the Covid-19 pandemic. If you are reading this post after April 17, 2020, you should verify that the policies mentioned in this post are still in effect. Nothing in the post should be construed as legal advice. Always seek the advice of a competent immigration attorney before making any decisions regarding your immigration matter.