In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. authorities are announcing a number of significant changes that will affect everyone who relies on immigration programs to run businesses or live and work in the United States. Businesses and their sponsored employees should be aware of the following changes announced last week:
United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS)
- Local office closings: March 17, 2020, USCIS announced that all local offices that are normally open to the public are closed and that all routine personal services in these offices are suspended at least until April 1, 2020. On March 25, 2020, USCIS extended The closings until April 7th. Local office services include status adjustments, naturalization, and asylum interviews, as well as appointments for information and biometric data or fingerprints. People who pre-set appointments in March should search for cancellation and reschedule notifications by email. Those scheduled for after April 1, 2020 should monitor public announcements and watch out for email notifications. Those in need of emergency assistance are directed to contact USCIS at 800-375-5283.
- Regional service centers: Processing of petitions and requests sent by mail or courier to a USCIS locker or regional service center is not affected by local office closures. However, see “Premium processing suspended” below.
- Premium processing: On March 20, 2020 USCIS announced This premium processing for I-129 and I-140 petitions has been suspended with immediate effect. If petitions received on or after March 20 request premium processing, the premium fee will be refunded to the sender. USCIS will also reimburse premium fees if the agency cannot complete processing of petitions received before March 20 within 15 days. The suspension includes petitions for the H-1B cap (“lottery”) for the 2021 fiscal year. For more information, see “H-1B FY2021 Lottery” below.
- Electronic copies of the original signatures: On March 20, 2020 USCIS announced that the agency accepts copies of ink signatures on forms that normally require “wet” (i.e. original) signatures. This exception persists for the duration of the national emergency. This temporary exception is welcome news for corporate application signers and their attorneys, who are increasingly working remotely with no easy access to courier services during the COVID 19 outbreak, and is particularly welcome as USCIS will notify companies until late March if they do so were selected to submit petitions in the HY1B lottery for the 2021 fiscal year. See “H-1B FY2021 Lottery” below for more information. In exceptional cases, the signatories must continue to physically sign the forms and keep these “wet” signature pages if USCIS asks for them.E-signed forms with tablets, software programs and similar technologies therefore do not meet the requirements. Businesses should consult with the immigration advisor about new procedures to benefit from this policy.
- E-Verify TNC extensions: On March 20, 2020 USCIS announced that employees have additional time to respond to tentative nonconfirmations (TNCs) and employers must continue to avoid adverse actions against the employee during the extended period. The normal TNC response time is 8 working days for the federal government. The extension recognizes that employees may need additional time to update their identity or employment entitlement documents when government offices are closed or offering limited services during COVID-19. However, no specific time frame is given and it is not clear whether all TNCs are affected.
- H-1B FY2021 lottery: Since the H-1B registration – a new procedure this year – was 100 percent electronic, there is hope that the results will be announced by March 31, 2020, as promised. With regional service centers handling tens of thousands of paper trays every day, it is unclear whether USCIS can continue operating 100 percent during COVID-19 in a manner that ensures the safety of its employees and contractors. USCIS operations can slow even further under these circumstances. In addition, F-1 students who rely on the “H-1B ceiling” for the current work permit have legitimate concerns as to whether their employer’s H 1B petitions, if selected in the lottery, will be timely (before October 1st). 2020) in order to avoid an interruption in their ability to work.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Service (ICE)
- Completing form I-9 personally On March 20, 2020, ICE announced Employers who have switched to remote work can complete Section 2 of Form I-9 by electronically reviewing the documents as usual, rather than personally with the employee. Employers should work with the immigration advisor to adapt current practices and ensure compliance. A detailed description of the workplaces where this exception can be used, what is still unclear and which other solutions may be available can be found in our post on March 24, 2020 here.
- Flexibility for working F-1 students: On March 23, 2020, ICE updated the college and university guidelines, clarifying that F-1 students can continue to work in CPT status from abroad as long as their employers either have an office outside of the U.S. can evaluate and progress electronically.
U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)
- Extended deadlines: DOL published one on March 20, 2020 FAQ on changes related to COVID-19. DOL processes both Labor Condition Applications (LCAs) for Visa programs H-1B, H-1B1 and E-3 as well as PERM work certificate applications for sponsorship of permanent residence. DOL extended some deadlines for employers to respond to agency requests, submit PERM requests beyond the normal 180-day hiring window, and complete the mandatory hiring process. Because the criteria for using these exceptions are complex, employers who may need them should discuss eligibility with the immigration advisor.
- PERMs via email: On March 24, 2020, DOL announced that from March 25th to June 30th 2020 the agency will issue certified ETA Form 9089 employment certificates via email instead of the required printout by mail. For this period, DOL will consider a printed, signed and dated date Copy the emailed form to meet the requirement to submit an “original” work certificate when employers submit their I-140 petitions to USCIS.
State Department (DOS)
- Closures of embassies and consulates: DOS previously shut down most consular services in China, Germany, Italy and other countries severely affected by COVID-19. On March 20, 2020 DOS continued announced The all Routine services at consulates and embassies worldwide have been suspended until further notice. Emergency and mission critical services continue to be offered, but it remains unclear how such services should be requested and what criteria must be met. Non-migrant workers who are either outside the U.S. or planning an international trip and need to apply for a visa before returning should closely monitor and plan for the appropriate consulate website.
- COVID-19 country specific information: DOS provided a website Current information on the status of the outbreak in each country. These entries include WHO global health counseling levels, applicable quarantines, border closures, travel restrictions, and contact information for assistance.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
- Border closings: CBP, responsible for inspecting all U.S., air, sea or land travelers, enforces travel restrictions for COVID-19 on the north and south borders. You can find detailed information on these restrictions in our article dated March 23, 2020.
- Basic trips to ports of entry: It is unclear whether trips from Mexico or Canada to the USA with non-immigrants entitled to work, such as B. Persons with H-1B, L-1 or TN status are considered “essential trips” and are therefore excluded from border closures and trips. Contact an immigration consultant before employees leave the U.S. or their home countries to assess the risk that they may be stranded or refused boarding or admission.
- Decisions about the port of entry: It is currently unclear whether CBP will continue to decide on TN and L-1 applications for Canadian citizens at pre-flight inspection stations and at ports of entry. The immigration advisor may need to check certain ports before making travel arrangements.
- Registration of a trusted traveler: On March 18, 2020, CBP announced Suspension of services in Trusted Traveler Enrollment Centers across the country, including registrations for Global Entry, SENTRI and NEXUS. The suspension remains in effect until “at least” May 1, 2020. Global entry applicants who have already been conditionally approved will continue to be registered upon arrival at participating airports while the registration center is suspended.
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