Tracking the Immigration Agencies’ Actions Amidst Hurricane Sandy

Update (11/2): USCIS has posted this reminder of special services and temporary relief that may be available to individuals affected by Hurricane Sandy, including expedited processing of employment authorization documents and extensions of certain non-immigrant status designations.  In its discretion, USCIS will also take it into account requests from individuals who were unable submit evidence or attend an appointment due to the impact of the hurricane.  USCIS is also extending the deadline  by thirty days for submission of materials for persons who have received Requests For Evidence (RFEs) or Notices of Intent to Deny (NOIDs) with deadlines between October 26th and November 26th.  Except for appointments that were automatically rescheduled as a result of USCIS office closures or the automatic extension of certain deadlines, it’s important to note that the burden remains on the applicant to establish that the hurricane affected the need for special services or the inability to meet application requirements.

Up and down the East Coast, the impact of Hurricane Sandy is still being felt and its aftermath will continue to affect people and businesses for days.  In the past, in some of the most severe storms, such as Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration agencies have issued widespread information on dealing with the immigration consequences of the storm.  Thus far, basic information is available regarding U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) plans; virtually nothing has been said about Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Given the almost routine nature of severe storms these days, DHS would be well-advised to centralize all immigration information and to formalize its procedures for pre- and post-emergency actions.   The public shouldn’t have to wonder each time whether or not ICE and CBP, for instance, will issue a letter reminding people that they won’t be conducting immigration enforcement during a storm.

Here’s what we do know:

  • USCIS is updating its website daily with information on office closures.
  • Many offices throughout the East Coast are closed today and others are opening late—check the website for specific office closures.
  • Appointments will automatically be rescheduled if a USCIS office was closed during your appointment time.
  • If you have doubts or questions, USCIS asks that you call the National Customer Service Center hotline at 1-800-375-5283.
  • Monitor the website for daily changes, as re-opening will obviously be affected by issues like electricity, flooding, access to roads, and general safety concerns.
  • ICE and CBP have issued what has become a standard (and welcome) letter that attempts to reassure people that their primary mission in all emergency situations is to save lives.  To the extent ICE and CBP officers are working on public safety/emergency relief efforts, they will not be engaged in immigration law enforcement initiatives.  The letter also states that the agencies will not be conducting immigration enforcement initiatives if they conflict with general public safety concerns during the storm.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  •  In the event that someone loses documentation relevant to their immigration status or application, how will USCIS handle missing information?  What procedures will be put into place to help people quickly obtain new identification documents?
  • How much immigration enforcement did go on during Sandy and its aftermath at ICE and CBP?  Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect between official pronouncements and on the ground actions.  We know that many dedicated public servants will be working overtime helping victims of Sandy, but we would welcome more details from ICE and CBP about actual activity by their officers in affected regions.  In the same vein, how did ICE make arrangements for those detained in its own facilities—or perhaps of even more concern—local jails?

Here’s what we would like to see:

  •  A centralized location for all immigration related information on the DHS website.
  • While “Frankenstorm” may have been an extraordinary event, the impact of storms and other natural disasters on the country is growing.  We need to continue to build up and support policies that emphasize public safety over immigration enforcement and quick, efficient means for helping people get back on their feet —including recreating or recovering lost documents—as quickly as possible.

Photo by NASA

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