As most of us know by now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared pandemic status for the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19. This means that the epidemic’s geographic reach is global. The spread of the virus could be mitigated or could increase, and the longer-term outlook remains uncertain. With respect to its effects on travelers to the United States and employment-based immigration, the following are a few highlights of related developments in the short term:

Travel Suspensions

  • On March 12, President Trump ordered a suspension, without warning, on travelers coming to the United States from or through European (Schengen-area) countries, where the virus is on the rise, with the exception of U.S. citizens and U.S. lawful permanent residents, who are allowed back but must be screened for signs of illness before returning. On March 14, the Trump administration extended the suspension to travelers from the U.K. and Ireland. The Europe travel suspension is in addition to an earlier ban to travelers from China, which remains in effect. The Europe order has thrown many travelers’ plans into chaos, and the bans will have an impact on employers that are trying to bring workers to the United States or for workers trying to get back home.
  • In addition, the U.S. and Canadian governments have agreed to close the U.S.-Canada border to all non-essential traffic, although the full extent of the agreement, including an effective date, has not yet been made public.
  • The Canadian government had previously announced several measures to help prevent the rise of COVID-19 cases across Canada. As of noon on March 18, travelers were no longer admitted to Canada by land, sea or air, with the exception of Canadian permanent residents, diplomats, air crews, and close family members of Canadian citizens, as well as U.S. Citizens. Only work permit and study permit holders providing essential services will be able to return to Canada (for example: pilots, air crews, students conducting essential research).  Additionally, the Canadian government has instituted a general self-isolation and prohibition of travel effective immediately.  All individuals admitted to Canada will be asked to self-isolate for the next 14 days, regardless of their origin and citizenship.  Airlines will be prohibited from boarding anyone with symptoms from flying to Canada, including Canadian citizens.
  • The EU has proposed a temporary restriction on all non-essential travel to the EU for 30 days.

USCIS Offices Temporarily Closed to the Public

  • As of March 18, USCIS has suspended in-person services until at least April 1. Scheduled appointments, such as biometrics appointments and green card interviews, and naturalization ceremonies are impacted by the closure.  USCIS staff will continue to perform duties that do not involve contact with the public, such as adjudicating applications and petitions from service centers.  USCIS will also provide emergency in-person services for limited situations.
  • USCIS will send notices to applicants with scheduled appointments impacted by the closure. When USCIS again resumes normal operations, USCIS should automatically reschedule appointments that were canceled due to the closure.
  • USCIS is implementing a nationwide “remote work program” for its employees, which may increase adjudication delays. A USCIS letter announcing the program makes no mention of the virus, but it is likely that the agency will make greater use of the program as containment strategies are rapidly implemented in many sectors nationwide.

Limited Consular Post Services

Other Issues Caused by Disruption to Work or Travel

  • Businesses who have instructed their employees to work from home must ensure they still comply with Department of Labor rules about the geographic scope of positions; for example, as specified for H-1B (specialty occupation) employees on the labor condition application. In general, H-1B and E-3 employees may work from home in the same metropolitan statistical area (MSA) as or within normal commuting range of their approved work locations without an amended petition. L-1, TN, and O-1 nonimmigrants may work from home for brief periods of time without an amended petition.
  • If there are furloughs and other temporary disruptions in employment, employers must continue to pay the wage rate, especially for H-1B and E-3 employees. Terminations may affect the maintenance of an employee’s nonimmigrant status. Layoffs may also impact an employer’s ability to submit labor certification applications, the first step in the employment-based greed card process.
  • Visitors for business or pleasure who are admitted on visas are eligible to apply for an extension of their status. Those who were admitted under a visa waiver may apply for an additional 30-day period for satisfactory departure based on a showing of their inability to travel back to their home countries.

As the U.S. and other countries around the world continue to grapple with containing the virus, the global situation is very fluid and changes dramatically without notice.  Chin & Curtis is committed to helping our clients through this new and challenging time.  Please contact your Chin & Curtis attorney for advice in specific situations.