The coronavirus outbreak has significantly disrupted the operations of government agencies around the country, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS is the agency that processes applications for various types of immigration benefits.
USCIS Changes Office Operations During Coronavirus Outbreak
The USCIS Seattle office was the first to temporarily close in early March when an employee tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
USCIS later closed all of its offices to the public (including field offices, asylum offices, and Application Support Centers) from March 28 until at least April 7. Given the current status of the coronavirus outbreak, the closure is almost certain to be extended.
Staff continue to perform work that does not require public interaction and provide limited emergency services. Applicants with appointments during the closure will receive notices in the mail with a rescheduled appointment date.
USCIS Waives Signature Requirements
USCIS also announced that it will waive all requirements for original signatures on petitions, applications and other documents.
The agency will accept signatures that have been copied, scanned, or faxed. This is essential for attorneys, as their usual filing procedures have been interrupted during the outbreak.
Naturalization Oath Ceremonies Put on Hold to Comply With Social Distancing
Due to the office closures, USCIS has suspended all naturalization ceremonies, which often take place in crowded settings.
This means that until the ceremonies restart, no new citizens are being sworn in. The agency says that it will automatically reschedule all ceremonies when operations return to normal.
Changes to USCIS Deadlines and Other Operations Remain Unclear
Despite the steps that USCIS has taken so far, advocates have pushed the agency for information on a list of other concerns that haven’t been addressed.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association is asking for USCIS to suspend and extend all deadlines for benefits until after the COVID-19 national emergency declaration ends. Attorneys do not have access to the equipment and services they need to prepare applications and evidence. They also struggle to meet with their clients in light of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders.
The agency has also been urged to protect individuals whose nonimmigrant visas may expire in the upcoming weeks, but who are unable to leave the country by the required date due to global travel restrictions.
Similar protections are needed for people who are on temporary work visas, which are normally tied to a specific employer. However, coronavirus-related closures have meant that many people cannot work at their current job. Advocates have asked USCIS to allow workers to change employers in these cases or relax the restrictions that tie them to a specific work site.
It also remains unclear how closures will impact recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who need to renew their status and work permits every two years.
USCIS has not stated whether it will continue to process DACA renewals while offices are closed. A Supreme Court decision on DACA’s legality could be issued at any time.
Many DACA recipients are concerned that they could lose their job or be deported. Others are worried the Supreme Court may rule against DACA before their renewal application is processed.
It is important that USCIS take immediate steps to address outstanding concerns about how immigrants’ paperwork and authorization will be impacted by the coronavirus. By failing to act, USCIS will force many applicants and attorneys to choose between public health and complying with immigration technicalities.
FILED UNDER: covid-19, USCIS