Coronavirus – Implications on US Immigration and Visa Processing

Please note this memo was issued on March 20, 2020, and guidance may have changed by the time you read this. We will endeavor to issue updates as we receive them.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is issuing regular updates to its guidelines regarding the restriction and closure of immigration services in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Rooney Nimmo, associate, Abbey Docherty summarizes some of these guidelines below.

USCIS Service Center offices remain in operation and will continue to process visa applications and responses to Requests for Evidence (RFEs) as normal.

In-Person Interviews and Services

Effective Wednesday, March 18, 2020, until at least April 1, 2020, USCIS has suspended all routine in-person visa interviews and adjudications. This includes biometric appointments, asylum hearings, and interviews for naturalization, employment, and family-based green cards, and adjustment of status applications. Additionally, all naturalization oath ceremonies for applicants approved for US citizenship are being automatically rescheduled.

USCIS will send notices to applicants and/or their attorneys regarding cancellation of all scheduled appointments and naturalization ceremonies impacted by this guidance. Interview appointments and oath ceremonies will be rescheduled for a later date when normal business operations resume. If you do not receive a notice within ninety days, please contact us and we will reach out to the USCIS contact center on your behalf.

The U.S. Department of State has also limited visa interviews at embassies and consulates worldwide, with many canceling all interviews until further notice. If you have an appointment scheduled at a US consulate abroad, the consulate will notify you of this cancellation and will provide you with information regarding rescheduling at a later date. Note that any MRV fees already paid in connection with a canceled interview will remain valid for use in rescheduling your appointment.

Suspension of Premium Processing

Effective March 20, 2020, USCIS has temporarily suspended premium processing for all nonimmigrant and immigrant employment petitions until further notice. USCIS will continue processing any petition requesting premium processing filed prior to this announcement, provided the petition has been accepted and a Form I-797 receipt notice has been issued or received.

This suspension includes new premium processing requests for all H-1B petitions, including H-1B cap-subject petitions for the fiscal year 2021, petitions from previous fiscal years, and all cap-exempt H-1B petitions. On March 18, 2020, USCIS issued guidance on tentative dates for resumption of premium processing for the 2021 fiscal year using a two-phased approach as follows:

  1. No later than May 27, 2020, for all candidates requesting a change of status from F-1 nonimmigrant status (i.e. those who are transferring from a student visa); and
  2. No earlier than June 29, 2020, for all other FY 2021 cap-subject petitions.

The suspension of premium processing for all employment-based visa application supersedes the guidance issued on March 18. USCIS will issue further guidance regarding the resumption of these tentative dates for H-1B applications at a later date.

Visa Renewals and Extensions 

Certain visa holders who are currently physically present in the US are automatically permitted to remain living and working for the same employer in the US for a period of up to 240 days after expiration of their visa or Form I-94 (whichever date is earlier), or until USCIS makes a decision on the petition, provided that the visa extension application was submitted prior to that expiration date. This exception applies to holders of the following visas: A-3; E-1 and E-2; G-5; H-1, H-2, and H-3; I; J-1; L-1; O-1 and O-2; P-1, P-2, and P3; R; TN; CW1; and E-3.

Any visa holder utilizing the 240-day rule must not travel outside the US prior to USCIS issuing an I-797 decision on the extension petition. Any visa holder who leaves the US during this time period will automatically lose their right to utilize the 240-day rule, and will not be permitted to re-enter the US until they have obtained either their visa extension or another valid work visa.

Special Situations: B-1/B-2 and F-1 Visa Holders

If you are an F-1 visa holder who cannot return home and who will experience severe financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic, you may request employment authorization to work off-campus. Additionally, if you are a temporary visa holder (e.g. B-1/B-2) who cannot return home due to the coronavirus, you may apply for an extension of status to remain in the US.

You may ask USCIS to expedite the adjudication of an application for off-campus employment authorization or an extension of stay, which remains available subject to USCIS discretion. If you are unable to pay the fee for a USCIS service or benefit, you may also request a fee waiver.

Please contact Abbey Docherty or your usual contact at our firm if you have any concerns or if any of the above situations apply to you and you would like to discuss your options.

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