Court Blocks USCIS Fee Increases

On the 29th of September, 2020, a federal judge in California granted a motion for the preliminary injunction of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) updated fee schedule. This fee schedule was set to go into effect on October 2nd, 2020, and would have increased filing fees for certain immigration and naturalization benefit requests. International studies, new U.S. citizens, and businesses would have been impacted.

DHS has originally announced the final rule on July 31st, 2020, which included a weighted average fee increase of 20 percent. Changes to filing fees included a new $50.00 fee for asylum seekers and an 80% increase for naturalization services. A $10 registration fee requirement was added for the filing of H-1B petitions on behalf of cap-subject aliens. I-765 Application for Employment Authorization fees would have increased by $140 and I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence fees would have reduced by $10 to amount to $1,130. USCIS had said that these price increases were necessary to support the agency as it suffered from a budget shortfall. Many immigration activists and human rights organizations denounced the rule soon after it was issued, criticizing that the rule pushed lower-income individuals outside of the U.S. immigration system.

Northern California U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White issued the nationwide injunction yesterday, banning Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and USCIS officials from implementing the July 31st Final Rule. Co-founder of Boundless Immigration Doug Rand explained that as long as this preliminary injunction is in place, USCIS will not be able to raise its fees as it had planned. It is likely that the U.S. government will appeal the Ninth Circuit court to obtain a stay, says Doug Rand, although it is unclear as to how long this will take.

In his ruling of Immigrant Legal Resource Center, et al. v. Chad F. Wolf, et al., Judge White wrote, “Plaintiffs persuasively argue that the public interest would be served by enjoining or staying the effective date of the Final Rule because if it takes effect, it will prevent vulnerable and low-income applicants from applying for immigration benefits, will block access to humanitarian protections, and will expose those populations to further danger.”

 

Judge White ruled that the case’s plaintiffs, composed of eight non-profit organizations that serve immigrants, showed that:

  1. DHS was not serving under the Homeland Security Act;
  2. The final rule violates procedural and substantive requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which included, “failing to disclose data, relying on unexplained data and ignoring data on the record,” according to the final rule. DHS had argued that individuals would apply for immigration services no matter how expensive USCIS filing fees are, which contradicted the statements that appeared during DHS’s comment period;
  3. The final rule was arbitrary and capricious, as it failed to consider the negative impacts on low-income immigrant populations;
  4. The government did not provide reasoned justification for the policy shift in which fee waivers were eliminated and fees were increased; and
  5. By implementing a fee for asylum seekers to deter frivolous applications, USCIS relied on factors that Congress had not intended for DHS to consider. This, again, violates the APA.

Judge White rejected the Trump Administration’s request for a brief administrative stay, writing that, “A stay beyond October 2, 2020, would allow the Final Rule to go into effect, thereby altering the status quo.” Note that this ruling temporarily halts the fee increases until the merits of the case are decided as a whole. Therefore, there remains the possibility that USCIS’s filing fees will go up in the future.

 

On July 31st, 2020, DHS announced a final rule regarding the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) fee schedule, which would dramatically increase USCIS filing fees for certain immigration and naturalization benefit requests. Overall, USCIS fees are being increased by a weighted average of 20 percent, according to USCIS.

The changes to filing fees include a first-ever $50.00 fee for asylum seekers and an 80% increase for naturalization services, which would raise the cost of online naturalization applications from $640 to $1,160. In addition, the changes announced include a $10 fee for the registration requirement for petitioners filing H-1B petitions on behalf of cap-subject aliens. I-765 Application for Employment Authorization fees will be increased by $140 (34% increase of the original $410 fee) and I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence fees have been reduced by $10 to amount to $1,130.

A detailed fee schedule, noting old fees and new fees for each application type, can be found here (or on uscis.gov/forms) on the USCIS website. On its website, USCIS specified that all filings postmarked December 23rd, 2016 or later must include the new fees or they will be rejected.

Effective on October 2nd, 2020, this new rule will support payroll, technology, and operations of USCIS. According to the agency, current fees would leave USCIS underfunded by around $1 billion per year. Immigration fees have risen to an extraordinary level in recent decades in the United States. For instance, in the 1990s, naturalization application fees were under $100.

The addition of a new asylum fee is important, as the U.S. joins Iran, Fiji, and Australia as countries that impose fees on asylum-seekers. Many immigration attorneys and activists have decried the added financial burden, as the right to seek asylum in the U.S. should not be conditioned on the ability to pay a fee, no matter what amount.

Human Rights First, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) international human rights organization, denounced the rule soon after it was issued. The organization’s Deputy Legal Director, Anwen Hughes, stated: “Asylum seekers typically arrive in the United States with very limited resources that quickly dwindle. For some who are detained upon arrival, the total amount of money they have available to them by the time they are filing for asylum can be less than this application fee.”

While these fee changes have been added, the proposed $275 renewal fee for DACA recipients has been removed so that DACA fees for employment authorization and biometric services will remain at 2017-levels.  

USCIS deputy director for policy, Joseph Edlow, has stated that “USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures and make adjustments based on that analysis.” He added, “These overdue adjustments in fees are necessary to efficiently and fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, secure the homeland and protect Americans.” In a Facebook post, USCIS announced that these fees are reviewed every other year by law.

Note that USCIS, experiencing the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, risks facing a revenue shortfall for the calendar year, despite having a budget surplus for the fiscal year. This will likely contribute to over 13,000 furloughs if USCIS does not receive a $1.2 billion emergency fund from Congress. USCIS is a peculiar federal agency because, rather than coming from the government, it receives its funds mainly from fee collection. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s recent immigration restriction-oriented policies, the agency has received fewer applications, contributing to its revenue shortfall.

According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, such furloughs will halt U.S. immigration, which will hurt families, businesses, educational institutions, medical facilities, and churches. Additionally, if USCIS is close to being shut down, immigrants in the process of naturalization will be unable to complete the process in time to register to vote, DACA recipients will not be able to renew their benefits, asylum applicants will face significant delays to their cases, and businesses will be unable to hire and retain non-citizen employees. The Migration Policy Institute concluded that for every month that the USCIS furlough lasts, 75,000 applications will not be processed. Fortunately, USCIS has agreed to move the previously-set date for these furloughs from August 3rd to August 30th.

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Last evening, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals limited an order that blocked the application of Trump’s Public Charge Grounds Final Rule during the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal appellate court concluded that the Department of Homeland and Security (DHS) and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may implement the public charge policy in every state but New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. These three states had previously sued the Trump administration over the public charge rule.

Since July 29th, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an injunction of the Trump administration’s public charge rule, meaning that USCIS and DHS had temporarily reverted to the 1999 Interim Field guidance established before Trump’s Public Charge Grounds Final Rule. The N.Y. district court reasoned that Trump’s rule had deterred immigrants from seeking testing and treatment for COVID-19, as they feared such acts would negatively impact their immigration cases.

The federal appellate court’s most recent decision, briefly detailed in a one-paragraph order written by U.S. Circuit Judge Peter Hall, will revive Trump’s “wealth test” for immigrants, a victory for the Trump administration as this is one of the most extensive restrictions on legal immigration. Under this test, DHS may negatively consider immigrants’ past usage of public benefits programs, such as food stamps and housing subsidies, as well as health and education level, to determine whether they will rely on government assistance. Such a reliance would adversely impact green card applications.

In the short order, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals – a higher level court than the U.S. district court that issued the primary injunction – explained that the public charge injunction is no longer nationwide and only applies to residents of New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

Since the nationwide injunction was announced, USCIS instructed applicants to hold off from filing Form I-944 Declaration of Self-Sufficiency for those filing on or after July 29th, 2020. USCIS has yet to publish further instructions for applicants who have already filed without the Form I-944, and USCIS has yet to update its website with the new ruling. However, because USCIS still has these instructions from July 29th on its website despite having adopted a new ruling, it may be useful to save a copy of this, along with the date, if an applicant has already filed without Form I-944.

On July 29, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a nationwide temporary suspension of the application of the February 24th 2020 Public Charge Grounds Final Rule. The injunction of this rule will apply to any period during which there is a declared national health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As long as the July 29th decision is in effect, USCIS will only apply the 1999 Public Charge Guidance established before the Public Charge Grounds Final Rule.

On March 26th, 1999, “public charge” was defined by Immigration and Naturalization Services as a ground of inadmissibility for which an alien may be denied immigration. A “public charge” refers to an individual “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either (i) the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance, or (ii) institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.” In August 2019, DHS announced a new rule that would alter this definition of “public charge,” so that it made individuals receiving the following benefits are inadmissible for permanent residence: Supplement Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid (with some exceptions), and certain public housing assistance. This secured self-sufficiency of permanent resident applicants, so that these individuals would not rely on American public resources. The change to the definition of “public charge” was adopted on February 24th, 2020, so that both applicants applying for permanent residents in the U.S. as well as those seeking immigration from abroad would be impacted. Until February 24th, 2020, the use of most public benefits did not have negative consequences to an immigrant’s legal status.

As long as the July 29, 2020 injunction is in place, USCIS will uphold the existing 1999 public charge guidance, rather than the Trump administration’s expanded rule. This injunction will certainly soften the process for permanent resident applicants, and will be applied throughout the COVID-19 national health emergency.

On July 29th, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York concluded that the plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence to show that the February 2020 Public Charge Final Rule deterred immigrants from seeking testing and treatment for COVID-19, fearing that this would make them consequently inadmissible to the United States. This, of course, complicates efforts at stopping the coronavirus and even further aggravates the spread of the pandemic. An injunction, the plaintiffs argued, would be in the general American public’s interest.

 

This injunction applies to adjustment of status applications and to non-immigration change or extension of status. For any petition filed after July 29, 2020, the applicant or the petitioner does not need to include the Form I-944, Declaration of Self-Sufficiency. If an applicant or petitioner has already submitted this form, USCIS will not consider the information on this form regarding receipt of public benefits. Additionally, the applicant and petitioner do not need to include information on the receipt of public benefits in Part 5 on Form I-539 Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant status, Part 3 on Form I-539A, or Part 6 on Form I-129 Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker.

On its website, USCIS has announced that it will issue guidance regarding the use of affected forms.

Recently, the Trump Administrations suspended the approval of green card requests to immigrants abroad seeking residency in the United States. Last week, this administration temporarily halted the process of requests from green card applicants already living in the country. The agency argues that this hold on processing green card applications is due to the suspension of in-person services caused by precautions taken during the coronavirus pandemic. Its current priority, USCIS claims, is to resume naturalization ceremonies.   

A senior USCIS officer told CQ Roll Call that some field adjudicators stopped processing green card applications from noncitizens residing in the U.S. back in April. While there may still be a larger hold on I-845 adjustment of status cases, there remain certain exemptions that have been released through internal communication within the USCIS network. Such exemptions that allow for cases to continue include

1) Case already distributed to adjudicator (for instance, if your interview was rescheduled due to COVID)

2) Continuations

3) Case related to a medical provider 

4) National Benefits Center work on adjustments 

5) Older, pending cases 

6) Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF) I-485s

7) Identified national security concerns  

8) Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate cases 

9) ELIS beta cases 
10) Age outs

11) DV cases 

12) Mandamus and other litigation cases

13) Detailed immigrants 

14) Military families

The USCIS also will allow immigration officers to submit applications that concern an “emergent or sensitive matter” outside these exemptions to their supervisors for consideration. 

While most federal agencies receive funding from Congress, USCIS receives most of its funding from immigration application fees. Since March, when USCIS temporarily suspended in-person services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, echoed by an overall decrease of human movement because of restricted international travel, USCIS has received an extremely low volume of immigration petitions and fees.   

As USCIS has experienced falling petition rates over the last two years, increased funding has been dedicated to vetting and enforcement by the Trump Administration. This shift reflects the administration’s immigration goals, which definitely have an unsustainable impact on USCIS’ finances. As the processing of green cards is being halted, we can predict that such restricted immigration will further constrain USCIS’ financial sustainability. While USCIS had a $790 million cash carryover at the end of fiscal 2017, it now faces a $1.5 billion deficit. 

End-of-Year Immigration Examinations Fee Account Carryover Balances, FY 2008-20

Source: Migration Policy Institute

Recently, USCIS urged Congress to provide $1.2 billion to address its severe budget shortfall. It is very likely that without this emergency infusion, USCIS will have to furlough up to 15,000 of its 18,700 employees. Such a measure will likely further slow down visa and green card processing in the near future. The agency claims that it will be able to pay back this requested $1.2 billion by imposing a 10 percent surcharge to USCIS application fees. This is important to note, because such a surcharge may act as a deterrent to future immigrants. 

Last November, USCIS proposed fee increases; for instance, this includes an 83 percent increase in naturalization application fees from $640 to $1,170. As immigration continues to be restricted through expanding proclamations, such proposed fee increases are likely to occur in order for USCIS to continue running. Retroactively, this would likely decrease the types of foreign nationals who are capable of affording this steep increase. 

 

Significance of HEROES Act on Immigrants in the United States

The U.S. House of Representatives recently introduced the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) as their “phase four” 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) stimulus and relief package. The HEROES Act, which House Representatives narrowly passed on May 15, 2020, by a 208 to 199 vote, includes a package of $3 trillion in tax cuts and spending to alleviate the negative health and financial impacts of the pandemic. This package also includes financial relief to state, local and tribal governments, an extension to enhanced unemployment benefits, debt collection relief, and direct cash payments to households.

This Act is unique to previous acts, as it addresses many of the faults of the previous bill that excluded immigrants. Six key provisions are included in the HEROES Act that will directly benefit immigrants and immigrant families who were neglected by the previous CARES act.

Cash Payments to Immigrants and their Families

The HEROES Act will provide stimulus money that was previously unavailable by the CARES Act. Direct payments will be issued in the amount of $1,200 for an individual, $2,400 for joint-filers, and $1,200 for up to three dependents with a maximum of $3,600. Undocumented immigrants would be also eligible for the first round of $1,200 checks sent out in April. Immigrants who are eligible for Medicaid will also have access to additional health care benefits.

Relief and Protections for Undocumented Essential Workers

According to the HEROES Act, undocumented immigrants working in essential fields such as health care will be temporary shielded from deportation, as their statuses will be “frozen” under deferred action. They will be able to apply for employment authorization throughout the pandemic. Moreover, unauthorized immigrants will be able to obtain work permits—and may hire these noncitizen immigrants without penalization.

Releasing Low Risk Immigrants from Detention

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be required to re-evaluate the files of detained immigrants and release those who are not perceived to be a threat to society or who are not necessarily subject to mandatory detention. The HEROES Act pushes ICE to apply low-cost alternatives to detention for low-risk immigrants (such as the use of ankle bracelet monitors).

Additionally, the bill requires detention facilities to provide free and unlimited soap to detainees, as well as phone and video call accessibility to communicate with family and legal representatives.

Facilitating the Arrival and Stay of Medical Professionals 

The HEROES Act would speed up visa and green card processing for all foreign medical workers who seek to research or work in fields related to combatting COVID-19. Consulates and U.S. Embassies would be required to prioritize visa interviews for these workers. Emergency appointments would have to be appointed in-person or through a remote platform as a teleconference. Furthermore, foreign-national doctors who have completed their residency in the U.S. are eligible under the HEROES Act to receive permanent residency through an expedited process.
This Act also grants nurses, doctors, and medical researches more flexibility in regards to where they work, which will allow doctors to work where they are most needed without the restrictions under visa controls that previously existed. This means that rather than applying for a new visa, medical professionals with H-1B statuses can transfer between hospitals without re-applying for new H-1B visas.

Medical students are also impacted: they will be able to transfer rotations within their host institution, while also receiving compensation for their work during this pandemic. These students will be able to work outside of their approved program as long as their work relates to COVID-19.

Health Benefits for Immigrants Regardless of Status

The HEROES Act also allows for undocumented immigrants to obtain testing, and treatment, and vaccination (once available) related to COVID-19 without cost, even if the individual does not have health insurance. This extension was not available to immigrants under the CARES Act. The USCIS has already affirmed that treatment in relation to COVID-19 will not make an immigrant a public charge.

While this legislation was passed in the House of Representatives, it is unlikely that it will pass in the Republican-majority Senate or get signed by President Trump, as the White House recently issued a statement opposing the legislation. Even if this act does not directly pass, it is possible that certain provisions of the Act will reappear in the future, perhaps as a bipartisan stimulus and relief bill later in the summer.

Feel free to contact our Portland Immigration Lawyers in Portland, Oregon for answers to your questions at our email address: info@immigrationlawgroupllc.com or call us at (866) 691-9894.

USCIS Proposed Changes to Affidavit of Support  

 

USCIS has recently proposed significant changes to the Form I-864 (Affidavit of Support) and other related forms I-864A and I0864EZ. The first proposed change is for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who are sponsoring a foreign spouse or relative for green cards to disclose detailed bank account information to the federal government. This includes the banking institution’s name, the account number, routing number, and account holder names. Note that U.S. legislation does not authorize USCIS to collect such information.

 

As a reminder, the Form I-864 (Affidavit of Support) is required for most immigrants seeking a green card in the U.S. based on marriage and family petitions in order to demonstrate that they will be financially supported and not become a public charge. This form is also sometimes required for immigrants seeking green cards based on employer sponsorship. Normally, sponsors must provide evidence of their income by submitting copies of their recent federal tax transcript or return, as well as any other financial statements or evidence of future outcome. The new USCIS proposal would change this process.

 

Almost a year ago on May 23rd, 2019, President Trump issued the Memorandum on Enforcing the Legal Responsibilities of Sponsors of Aliens. In the presidential memo, President Trump emphasized that individuals financially sponsoring alien green card applicants must completely fulfill their commitments under the law. In response to this memo, USCIS focused on better informing sponsors and household members on the implications of their financial obligations. For instance, language in these forms has been modified to ensure clarity regarding sponsor obligations and consequences if the sponsor’s responsibilities are not met. These are included in an extended “Sponsor’s Certification” section as well as a “Household Member’s Contract, Statement, and Certification.” Moreover, the draft of this new form informs sponsors of a civil penalty imposed by the USCIS if the sponsor does not inform the USCIS within 30 days of moving. Additionally, this new Affidavit of Support also asks sponsors to list people who not actively living with the sponsor (such as college students that are not living at home), which will consequently increase the income requirement as the household size increases.

 

Forms I-864 will also allow sponsors to provide information about previously submitted Affidavits and an optional submission of a credit report as evidence. USCIS is also proposing to require U.S. citizens and permanent legal resident sponsors to notarize forms I-864, I-864A, and I-864EZ by a notary public prior to submission to USCIS. These proposed changes will create a burden for sponsors. This may deter them from accepting to be sponsors, which will likely impede some individuals from immigrating.

Finally, the new form requires that the sponsor agree to allow the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other agencies to share information with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of State. If the alien applicant applies for means-tested public benefits, the sponsor’s privacy can be waived to a greater extent. The new form is stricter in its warning that improperly completed forms, or forms missing proper evidence, may be denied.

 

No effective date has been published, and this will come with the final rule. USCIS accepted public comments for these revisions during a thirty-day period that ended on May 11, 2020. Because the comment period for the rule is closed, the state will now review public comments and publish a final rule within the coming months. Note that if passed, this proposal will only impact applications filed on or after the effective date of the rule.

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Can I still sponsor my Spouse, Parent, or Child for a Green Card during Covid-19?

As COVID-19 disrupts immigration services and proceedings in the U.S., many citizens wonder if they can still petition their relatives. Yes!—if you are a U.S. citizen of at least 21 years of age, you can still sponsor your spouse, parent, or child for a Green Card during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Steps to take to sponsor an alien immediate relative

U.S. Green Cards allow foreign nationals to permanently reside and work in the United States.

While all USCIS in-person activities, including in-person interviews, have been temporarily suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic until June 4th, measures U.S. citizens must take to sponsor a relative for a Green Card are not be impacted by the USCIS office closures. While green card applicants and petitioners can wait until the response to COVID-19 is over, this is certainly not necessary and does not mean that the processing time will be any quicker.

First, the petitioner (the U.S. citizen sponsoring the foreign immediate relative) must file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. This form establishes the family relationship between the petitioner(s) and the applicant relative (the beneficiary).

Once Form I-130 is approved, an immigrant visa will be immediately available for the beneficiary. If the immediate relative is already in the United States, he or she can submit an Adjustment of Status applications to obtain permanent legal residency if he or she successfully passed an interview with a local USCIS field office. Note that these USCIS interviews thus far have been canceled and rescheduled. USCIS offices will send notices with instructions to applicants and petitioners with scheduled interview appointments impacted by this closure. Once normal operations are able to be resumed, they will automatically be rescheduled. Through this process, the beneficiary will not need to return to his or her home country.

If the immediate relative is abroad, the beneficiary will have an immigrant visa interview overseas at a U.S. Department of State consulate or embassy through Consular Processing. Again, if a beneficiary’s home country is impacted by COVID-19 closures, he or she must wait for their local interviews to be rescheduled.

While some marriage-based green card applicants have also been approved without interviews in the previous weeks, it is most likely that the interview process will not be waived, as it is important to screen cases for fraud.

Sometimes, a petitioner can file the I-130 with an application for permanent residence (Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) if they are sponsoring a spouse, an immediate relative parent, or an unmarried child under 21 years of age. After the I-485 is filed, beneficiaries may also apply for an I-765 work permit or a I-131 travel permit.

Note that non-immediate family relationships that qualify for sponsorship may also include Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, spouses and children (F1), and Unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents, Spouses and Children of Permanent Residents (F2A), Unmarried Sons and Daughters (21 years of age or older) of Permanent Residents (F2B), Married Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens (F3), and Brothers and Sisters of Adult U.S. Citizens (F4).

In these family cases, an immigrant visa will not be immediately available upon approval of form I-130, and depends upon the Visa Bulletin issued monthly by the Department of State. The Visa Bulletin indicates which green card applications can move forward based upon when Form I-130 was originally filed. The bulletin also offers an estimate for how long it will take to obtain a green card, based on how quickly “line” is moving at that time.

General Documents Needed for Sponsorship

The following documents are needed for a U.S. citizen to foreign national sponsor a spouse, child, or parent:

  • Proof of U.S. Citizenship (Certificate of Naturalization, the Biographic page of an American passport, or a copy of a green card).
  • Birth Certificate,
  • I-94 arrival-departure record (this can now be obtained online)
  • A marriage certificate for marriage-based green cards

Financial Sponsorship 

Petitioners who have filed the form I-130 must be financial sponsors to the beneficiary, meaning that they accept financial responsibility for the beneficiary. This also means that the petitioner must reimburse, or be reimbursed by, the government if the green card holder applies for certain public benefits. For the petitioner to qualify as a financial sponsor, he or she must submit a Form I-864 and list: the past three years of income, current income, proof of tax returns from the previous 3 years, W-2 statements, current pay-stubs, and an employment verification letter. The sponsor’s household size will be taken into account in light of his or her income, to ensure that they earn above the minimum income requirements.

Impacts of Covid-19 on Public Charge Rule for Green Cards

The Public Charge Rule continues to apply for Green Card applications. This rule has discouraged green card applicants from accessing healthcare in the past, but USCIS emphasizes that treatment or preventive services for the COVID-19 will not negatively affect any alien as part of a future Public Charge analysis. The USCIS stresses that it encourages all aliens with symptoms that resemble COVID-19’s to seek necessary medical attention. Here is a list of government benefits that are considered during the Public Charge assessment.

Important things to keep in mind for Green Card applications during COVID-19…

  • While many facilities are still closed, the State Department has this tool to crop a photograph of yourself that will satisfy the passport photo requirement. There are many websites online (such as this one) that also mail your photographs to your home address.
  • While normally, work and travel permits cannot be processed without a biometrics notice, USCIS has been reusing biometrics (i.e. the required submission of fingerprints and a digital photo) collected during previous applications.
  • USCIS has announced that it will temporarily accept filings with electronically-reproduced copies of original signatures instead of normally required “wet” signatures for all benefit forms and documents dated March 21 and beyond from both attorneys and applicants. So long as an original document contains an original handwritten signature, it can be scanned, faxed, photocopied or similarly reproduced.

Impact of Travel Proclamations on Immediate Relative Applicants Abroad? 

Keep in mind President Trump’s four COVID-19 Travel Proclamations (China Travel Proclamation; Iran Travel Proclamation; European Schengen Area Proclamation; Ireland and United Kingdom Proclamation). However, these do not apply to spouses of U.S. citizens, parents or legal guardians of U.S. citizens, and the children of U.S. citizens.

 

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USCIS Relaxed Immigration Policies during Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

On March 18th, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services temporarily suspended in-person services in h­opes to slow the spread of COVID-19. USCIS plans to reopen offices on or after June 4th, 2020, unless there is an extension in public closures. USCIS continues to process green cards, work permits, asylum applications, and other paper-based requests. To adapt to new limited circumstances informed by COVID-19, USCIS has recently been flexible in certain immigration policies in order to avoid service delays and disruptions for the benefit of applicants and petitioners. Listed below are new relaxed policies and immigration flexibilities implemented by USCIS to accommodate for constraints caused by the pandemic.

Waiving Green Card Interviews
While family and employment-based green card applicants typically attend in-person interviews at USCIS field offices before their green cards are approved, these interviews have been canceled until at least June 3rd. However, there are wide reports that USCIS has relaxed this green card interview requirement for employment-based green card applicants during this pandemic as a means of avoiding dense delays in the future.

Note that no formal policy has been released by USCIS confirming that the interview requirement will be waived, but this appears to have been occurring as many employment-based green card applicants with canceled interviews have had their green card statuses approved. Because no formal statement has been released yet by USCIS, as of May 7th, there is no guarantee that this will be the case for all employment-based green card applicants, however, it seems that as long as all other documentation is present, USCIS will adjudicate permanent residence applications.

While some marriage-based green card applicants have also been approved without interviews, it is likely that the interview process will not be waived, because of the importance in screening cases for fraud. Note that this waiving of appointments does not apply to citizenship applications.

Reusing Previous Biometrics 

For extensions of benefits like work permits, USCIS will reuse biometrics (that is, required submission of fingerprints and a digital photo) collected during previous applications. Often, however, USCIS will issue original work permits without any new collection of biometrics, reusing previously-collected biometrics collected on other occasions, such as upon entry to the United States.

EAD Renewal Application Flexibilities 

In resonance with other biometric-related measures taken by USCIS to reduce delays in adjudication, USCIS announced flexibility for Employment Authorization Documents (EAD) renewal applications by reusing prior biometrics for renewal applicants.

Relaxed “Wet” Signature Requirement  

USCIS has announced that it will temporarily accept filings with electronically-reproduced copies of original signatures instead of normally required “wet” signatures for all benefit forms and documents dated March 21 and beyond from both attorneys and applicants. USCIS has stated that it is safer for clients and attorneys to avoid in-person meetings. So long as an original document contains an original handwritten signature, it can be scanned, faxed, photocopied or similarly reproduced. USCIS may request copies of such original documents in the future, so employers are advised to retain copies. Note that USCIS does not allow any electronic signatures on its forms or petitions, so the petitioner or applicant must have access to a printer and a scanner to reproduce a signed paper form for USCIS filing. USCIS forms are protected from alteration, so even if the petitioner or applicant attempts to do so, they cannot be electronically signed.

Extensions of Certain Deadlines

USCIS has also extended the time by which applicants are able to respond to an RFE, NOID, NOIR, and NOIT if the notice was issued between March 1st and May 1st by a period of 60 days following the date of issuance.

Flexibility in the Visa Waiver Program
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many foreign nationals who were in the U.S. have been stranded and unable to leave. Normally, most individuals can visit the U.S. for a 90-day period without a visa according to the Visa Waiver Program. However, many of these foreign national travelers in the U.S. have overstayed their 90-day stays due to flight cancellations and the recent Presidential Proclamations that restrict entry from the Schengen Area countries, the U.K, and Ireland. CBP and USCIS are assisting travelers to obtain a supplementary 30-day extension called “Satisfactory Departure.” These foreign national individuals may request this extension from the USCIS by contacting the USCIS Contact Center.

Otherwise, such foreign nationals may request “Satisfactory Departure” by contacting the Deferred Inspection unit of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the international airport where they entered the country or the international airport closest to their current location. These extension processes are crucial for visitors who have overstayed their 90-day periods, because an overstay of this period completely will prevent visitors from utilizing the Visa Waiver Program in the future.

Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19) Impacts on Immigrant Applicants 

Recent measures taken by the United States government, in an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), have disrupted immigration services and proceedings. Here is a brief overview of commonly asked questions regarding how this pandemic will affect noncitizens, particularly green card and naturalization applicants.

 

Impact on Interviews and Appointments

Since March 18th, USCIS has temporarily suspended routine in-person services through at least May 3 in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. USCIS provides emergency services for very limited situations; in order to schedule an emergency appointment, contact the USCIS Contact Center. USCIS staff will continue to perform duties that do not involve any physical contact.

Please note that you can create an account with the USCIS Online Portal in order to view your current application case status, your case history, the next steps for service requests, and you can receive case updates by text or email. Sign up here. Doing this will allow you to stay up-to-date on your application.

 

Q: Is my interview still scheduled?

USCIS offices will send notices with instructions to applicants and petitioners with scheduled interview appointments impacted by this closure. Once normal operations are able to be resumed, they will automatically be rescheduled.

If you have yet to hear from your consulate office, call your consulate office. You can check the USCIS Field Offices page to see if your field office has reopened before reaching out to the USCIS Contact Center.

 

Q: What should I do if my interview is cancelled for my adjustment of status application?

Wait for USCIS to contact you with further instructions. Signing up with the USCIS Online Portal will allow you to get immediate access to information regarding rescheduling.

 

Q: What if I had an InfoPass appointment?
If you had an InfoPass appointment with a Field Office, you must reschedule your appointment through the USCIS Contact Center.

 

Q: Because USCIS offices are closed, what will happen to my biometrics appointment and how will this impact my application? 

USCIS has temporarily suspended all biometrics appointments. When USCIS resumes normal operations, your biometrics appointment will be automatically rescheduled within 90 days. You can call 800-375-5283 if you do not receive this rescheduled appointment.

 

Q: Because USCIS offices are closed, what will happen to my asylum appointment?

If you have an asylum application pending with USCIS, your case status can be checked online (you will need the receipt number mailed to you after you filed your application). If you need to contact your local asylum office, you can use the Asylum Office Locator.

Q: Because USCIS offices are closed, when will I be able to reschedule my naturalization ceremony?
USCIS will automatically reschedule your ceremony. A notice for your scheduled ceremony should be received by mail. If, in the next 90 days, you have not received this notice, reach out to USCIS Contact Center.

 

Q: If I am out of the country, am I able to switch consulate offices for an interview?

Call the National Visa Center (NVC). Switching consulate offices depends upon the circumstances.

 

Impact on Processing times

Q: How will the processing time of the application be impacted if my application is submitted? If my green card or naturalization application is submitted now, how will the processing time of the application be impacted?

All visa processing times are dependent upon the spread of COVID-19. If USCIS has informed you about rescheduling your biometrics or interview appointment, please follow the instructions in the sent document. All USCIS-related domestic delays can be kept track of here.

 

Note that all applications turned into USCIS are still being processed at their respective lockbox, but this process is taking longer than usual given the circumstances. Work and travel permits cannot be processed without a biometrics notice. Depending on how long the closures remain, this will add to the 5-8 months processing times for a work and travel permit, and to the 11- to 14-month processing time for a green card.

 

Travel-Related Questions

Q: If I am overstaying my visa due to travel restrictions or limited flights, how will this impact my application? 

Under usual circumstances, nonimmigrants must depart the United States before their authorized period of admission expires. However, USCIS recognizes that nonimmigrants may unexpectedly remain in the U.S. beyond their authorized period of stay. USCIS notes the following:

  • Apply for an Extension: Most nonimmigrants can file an application for extension of stay (EOS) or change in status (COS) to avoid the immigration consequences of COVID-19.
  • File in a Timely Manner: if a nonimmigrant’s timely-filed EOS or COS application is pending, he or she will generally not accrue an unlawful presence.
  • New Flexibility for Late Applications: USCIS may excuse a nonimmigrant’s failure to timely file an extension/change of status request if the delay was due to extraordinary circumstances. Under current regulations and as noted on our Special Situations page, if a petitioner or applicant files an extension of stay or change of status request (on Forms I-129 or I-539) after the authorized period of admission expires, USCIS may excuse the failure to timely file if it was due to extraordinary circumstances beyond their control, such as those that may be caused by COVID-19. The length of delay must be commensurate with the circumstances. The petitioner or applicant must submit credible evidence to support their request, which USCIS will evaluate in its discretion on a case-by-case basis. These special situations have been used at various times in the past, including for natural disasters and similar crises.
  • New Flexibility for Visa Waiver Entrants: Visa Waiver Program (VWP) entrants are not eligible to extend their stay or change status. However, under current regulations, if an emergency (such as COVID-19) prevents the departure of a VWP entrant, USCIS in its discretion may grant up to 30 days to allow for satisfactory departure. Please see 8 CFR 217.3(a). For those VWP entrants already granted satisfactory departure and unable to depart within this 30-day period because of COVID-19 related issues, USCIS has the authority to temporarily provide an additional 30-day period of satisfactory departure. To request satisfactory departure from USCIS, a VWP entrant should call the USCIS Contact Center.
  • If you would like additional information on late requests to extend or change status, you can look over 8 CFR 214.1(c)(4) and 8 CFR 248.1(c). In addition, please see Form I-129 and Form I-539 pages for specific filing and eligibility requirements for extensions and changes of status.

Q: How can I get passport photographs if there is a stay-at-home order? 

The State Department has this tool to help you crop a photograph of yourself that will satisfy the passport photo requirement. There are many websites online (such as this one) that also mail your photographs to your home address.

 

Impact on USCIS Requests
Q: What approaches are USCIS taking to increase flexibility? 

On March 27, 2020, USCIS announced that it would allow an extra 60 days for a timely response to all Requests for Evidence (RFE) and Notices of Intent to Deny (NOID) dated between March 1, 2020, and May 1, 2020. This flexibility also applies to certain Notices of Intent to Revoke (NOIR) and Notices of Intent to Terminate (NOIT) regional investment centers, and certain filing date requirements for Form I-290B, Notice of Appeal or Motion. USCIS will not issue new RFEs or NOIDs to account for the extended period of time. Rather, it will not take any action on the RFE or NOID until more than 60 days beyond the deadline.

 

When to Apply?

Q: If I have yet to submit my application, will my I-130 be impacted?

While processing times will increase, USCIS offices still accept I-130 applications.

 

Q: When should I submit my marriage-based green card application?

USCIS still accepts marriage-based green card applications.

 

Impact on Health Care

Q: How will being diagnosed with COVID-19 impact my green card or naturalization application? 

Care received at the emergency room, at a community health clinic, or at a free clinic does not trigger the Public Charge rule. USCIS issued a recent statement clarifying that any treatment or preventative service related to COVID-19 will not negatively affect any individual as part of a Public-Charge analysis.

 

Q: How will getting tested for COVID-19 impact my green card or naturalization application under the Public Charge rule?

You will not be impacted. Getting tested for seeking treatment for COVID-19 would not count against a would-be immigrant under the Public Charge rule. Accessing discounted care at hospitals, clinics, or other facilities will not be listed as a Public Benefit. Here is a list of government benefits that are considered during a Public Charge assessment.

 

Q: If I am receiving unemployment benefits, will my green card or naturalization application be negatively impacted under the Public Charge rule? 

Unemployment insurance is not included in the government’s list of categories of benefits that make someone a potential public charge. If you do rely on additional government benefits that are included on the government’s list, it is recommended that you attach a letter of explanation to your future application to note how the coronavirus pandemic affected your ability to work and conduct your usual activities.

 

Impacts of Relief Bill on Visa Applicants

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act states that immigrants are excluded from the stimulus payments, with one exception. Green-card holders are the only exception and will receive stimulus payments if they qualify. Otherwise, immigrants (including immigrants who are in the U.S. on work visas and pay taxes) are not eligible for the payments. Additionally, American citizens who are married to immigrants without Social Security numbers will not receive stimulus checks as part of the government’s COVID-19 relief efforts.

 

Impacts on International Students

Q: If I am an international student with an F-1 visa, but want to leave the U.S. for longer than five months, will this violate my F-1 status?

Current F-1 regulations state that a student may reenter the U.S. only after a temporary absence no longer than five months.

The DHS Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is issuing updated guidance, confirming that international students with an active status will not be subject to this five-month rule. The only exception is for students enrolled in full-time study abroad programs.

 

Q: Will my SEVIS record be negatively impacted if I am doing remote learning abroad?

Your F-1 record will not be impacted during the temporary COVID-19 accommodation period, because you will be taking online courses as a student.

 

Q: I am an F-1 student who has been experiencing severe economic hardships because of the pandemic. What can I do?

F-1 students who are experiencing economic hardships because of unexpected circumstances, such as the pandemic, can request employment authorization to work off-campus by filing Form I-765 Application for Employment Authorization and Form I-20, along with any additional supporting materials. For more, click here. 

 

Such students would be eligible to apply for off-campus employment authorization if they are:

  • A citizen of a country specified in a Federal Register notice;
  • Have been lawfully present in the United States for the period indicated in the Federal Register notice;
  • Have reported on time to their Designated School Official and been enrolled in a Student and Exchange Visitor Program-certified school since the special situation;
  • Currently maintaining F-1 status; and
  • Experiencing severe economic hardship.

USCIS may also discretionarily authorize special student relief and suspend certain requirements that would normally be mandatory for individuals from certain parts of the world that the secretary of Homeland Security identifies as experiencing emergency circumstances.

 

Impact on H-2A Workers

Q: How will the recent temporary changes to H-2A requirements impact me, if I am a foreign worker in the U.S. with a valid H-2A status?

The DHS and USCIS have published a temporary final amendment on some H-2A requirements so that U.S. agricultural employers may avoid disruptions in lawful agricultural-related employment, to protect the nation’s food supply chain, and to decrease the effects of COVID-19 on national public health. Under this temporary rule, foreign workers in the U.S. with H-2A status can be employed by H-2A petitioners with valid temporary labor certification immediately after USCIS receives the H-2A petition.

Q: I am an H-2A worker but am nearing my three-year maximum allowable period of stay in the United States. However, I cannot leave due to travel restrictions related to COVID-19. What should I do?

USCIS is temporarily amending its regulations to allow H-2A workers to stay beyond the three-year maximum period. These temporary changes will support lawful employment of foreign temporary and seasonal agriculture workers during the COVID-19.

Note: only once this petition in approved and published in the Federal Register, H-2A workers will be able to stay in the U.S. for a period of time validated by the Temporary Labor Certification. If DHS determines that future circumstances illustrate a continued need for changes to H-2A regulation, DHS will issue a new temporary final rule in the Federal Register to amend the termination date.

If you have questions about how these new changes may affect your case, please contact us on our website, by email at info@immigrationlawgroupllc.com or give us a call at (866) 691-9894.