As the U.S. responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, rapid and sweeping changes are being made to the nation’s immigration system. If any of these changes – discussed below – impact you or your family, you may need to seek sound legal advice from a good Boston immigration attorney.
The government is taking aggressive measures to restrict travel to the U.S. during the outbreak. It has suspended nearly all legal immigration and halted most legal immigration procedures. The government is reducing immigration enforcement and has stopped all removals to three nations.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation. Changes to the immigration system are being made that will powerfully impact millions of lives, and as April 2020 begins, no one can know how long some of the temporary changes triggered by the pandemic will remain in effect.
It is almost inevitable that more immigration changes will be announced as new information about the COVID-19 pandemic becomes available.
CHANGES AT THE BORDERS
In March, the United States and Mexico announced that they are limiting nonessential travel across their border. Cross-border travel – for now – will be restricted to those who must cross the border for work, school, or medical reasons.
Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security announced in March that any persons who are found “seeking to enter the U.S. without proper travel documentation” will be removed or repatriated to their countries of origin.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions are also being imposed at the northern border. Canada and the United States have halted “nonessential” travel across that border. On Twitter, the president promised that trade “will not be affected” by the prohibition on nonessential cross-border travel.
CHANGES IN IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will also modify the way it operates in response to the pandemic. In March, the agency told congressional staffers that it will focus on persons who present a public safety threat and who qualify for detention “based on criminal grounds.”
ICE also told congressional staffers that enforcement operations will not be conducted at or near healthcare facilities except for “extraordinary circumstances.” Still, immigration activists worry that ICE activities will make many immigrants reticent to seek COVID-19 testing or treatment.
ICE is also temporarily cancelling all social visits to its detention centers.
The Department of Justice has responded to the pandemic by temporarily closing a number of the nation’s immigration courts. In the immigration courts that remain open, hearings that involve immigrants who are not currently held in detention have been indefinitely postponed.
CHANGES IN IMMIGRATION-RELATED TRAVEL RULES
The International Organization for Migration and the United Nations are temporarily suspending all international refugee resettlement travel. In a joint statement, the two organizations said that refugee resettlement travel at this time may pose considerable health risks to refugees.
After that statement was released, the United States announced a halt to all refugee admissions, at least for now. ICE, however, is continuing to remove immigrants, although all deportation flights to South Korea, China, and Italy have been temporarily suspended.
Prior to boarding any deportation flight – at least for now – deportees are screened, and those with temperatures over 100.4 degrees are being referred to healthcare providers.
Foreign nationals from China, Iran, and twenty-six other European nations stretching from Greece to Iceland are currently barred from entry into the United States. Other nations may be added to the travel ban list in the coming days, and some nations could soon be removed from it.
United States citizens, green card holders, and their immediate family members returning from these nations will undergo health screenings upon arrival.
Because foreign nationals from so many nations cannot now enter the United States, U.S.-based employers may need – at least temporarily – to reconsider their hiring plans.
CHANGES TO IN-PERSON SERVICES
In March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) temporarily suspended almost all in-person services at its field offices, asylum offices, and Application Support Centers.
ICE has also cancelled and will reschedule in-person appointments for immigrants who are not being held in detention.
However, the State Department is giving consular officers the option of waiving H-2 visa interview requirements for first-time as well as returning applicants. Applicants who did not require a waiver when they applied previously may not now need to be interviewed in person.
“Temporarily waiving in-person interviews for H-2 visa applicants streamlines the application process and helps provide steady labor for the agriculture sector during this time of uncertainty,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a March 26th statement.
OTHER IMPORTANT IMMIGRATION CHANGES
Children who enter the country with no parent or guardian are cared for at dozens of facilities across the United States until they can be placed with sponsors.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Refugee Resettlement will temporarily refrain from placing immigrant children in facilities in the states of Washington and California.
2020 has already been a year of chaotic and confusing changes for immigrants, their families, and their employers based in the United States, and more immigration changes are likely in the coming weeks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are confused, you’re not alone.
If you are waiting to have a visa application processed, waiting for an immigration court hearing, or seeking to become a permanent lawful resident or a naturalized citizen, what has already been an extremely long wait is probably going to be even longer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
THE ADVICE YOU NEED IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES
You’ll need some patience. Visa holders and visa applicants, their families, and their employers also need to know how the ongoing immigration changes will affect them, how to meet their obligations and legal challenges, and how to stay compliant with the law during the pandemic.
If you are affected by any of the pandemic-related changes to immigration regulations and procedures, don’t hesitate to discuss the details of your situation with a Boston immigration attorney. In any matter related to immigration, you’re going to need personalized advice.
Immigration has always been complicated, frustrating, and confusing, and the COVID 19 pandemic isn’t helping. However, the right lawyer can help.
The right immigration attorney can explain how the ongoing immigration changes affect you and provide the immigration-related legal advice and services you may need in these unprecedented times and circumstances.