Arlington, VA

This sponsored column is by James Montana, Esq. and Doran Shemin, Esq., practicing attorneys at Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Arlington, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact James for an appointment.

COVID-19 has changed the way we do business. We’ve ended all client visits at our office, and when green cards arrive, we deliver them in person. We are also doing our part to help out in the community, by volunteering with the Medical Reserve Corps (check out James’ new gear!) and by helping other local businesses apply for Paycheck Protection Program funding.

Immigration is our specialty, though, so we want to provide the latest information here about what parts of the immigration system are operational and which are not. As always, consult your lawyer if you have questions about your own particular circumstances.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is still processing green cards, work permits, asylum applications and other paper-based requests. But the doors are shut to in-person visits. As of March 18, all in-person services, including naturalization interviews, citizenship oath ceremonies and asylum interviews are canceled through May 3.

Application Support Centers, which process applicants’ fingerprints for various benefit applications, are also closed through May 3.  However, the good news for work permit applicants is that if the applicant has previously provided fingerprints, USCIS will use the previously submitted fingerprints to continue to process the application.

USCIS has recognized that during the COVID-19 crisis, it may be more difficult to obtain certain documentation to respond to a request for more evidence or file an appeal.  Therefore, USCIS will accept responses for up to 60 days after the original due date for any response or appeal issued or due between March 1 and May 1.

USCIS also acknowledged that it is safer for clients and attorneys to avoid meeting in person. Normally, USCIS requires wet ink signatures on many applications and petitions. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, USCIS is temporarily accepting scanned or photocopied signatures so attorneys and applicants do not have to hand paperwork back and forth or meet to sign documents.

Customs and Border Protection, along with USCIS, is also assisting foreign travelers. Many people can come to the United States for a period of 90 days without a visa based on the Visa Waiver Program. However, COVID-19 has left many travelers stranded and unable to leave the United States before the 90 days runs out. Customs and Border Protection and USCIS are assisting travelers obtain a “satisfactory departure” and 30-day extension in the hope that the inability to leave does not negatively impact future travel.

The immigration courts have also taken steps to protect the public. All court hearings for immigrants who are not detained have been suspended through May 1 and the courts will reschedule the hearing for a later date. This step is important because on any given morning, about 150 people can pass through a single courtroom for a non-detained hearing.

Further, many courts have standing orders that allow attorneys to appear telephonically without requesting to do so in advance and without filing a motion for hearings involving a detained immigrant. All of the immigration judges at the Baltimore and Arlington Immigration Courts are allowing attorneys to appear telephonically.

Some courts have also allowed attorneys to file documents via email instead of filing in person or by mail. The Executive Office for Immigration Review has also started sending automated email updates to attorneys registered with the online immigration court portal regarding court closures or delayed openings.

Finally, the Department of State has suspended all routine visa services unless there is a true emergency. However, the Department of State continues to process some H-2 visas, which are largely issued to seasonal agricultural workers, due to the importance of maintaining the food supply chain during this crisis. U.S. citizen services also continue to be available.

Our office recognizes that we are all facing unique challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we appreciate the various agencies’ efforts to flatten the curve. We are also doing our part to keep the community safe while continuing to assist our clients by practicing social distancing measures and adhering to the Virginia stay at home order.

If you or someone you know is concerned about the effect of COVID-19 on their immigration case, we are still here to help. As always, we also welcome any comments and will do our best to respond.

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