NEW YORK – For legal immigrants in United States, especially those in the pipeline for a Green Card and on work visas, there are new anxieties and worries, a greater uncertainty of the future than ever before, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most immigration services, including in-person services at field offices, are closed, till at least May 3, 2020. Those whose visas are expiring, or due for extension, are likely having panic attacks, thinking of how everything will pan out, despite some official gestures to ease the pain.
The temporary office closure affects tens of thousands of individuals awaiting immigration benefits such as extensions of status, work permits, Green Cards and U.S. citizenship through naturalization — including those who have interview appointments, biometric services and naturalization ceremonies, reported the Miami Herald.
The good news, however, is that the Trump Administration, for all their past rhetoric against immigration expansion, is being unusually kind and considerate for legal immigrants during this trying time.
USCIS has announced that it will reuse previously submitted biometrics in order to process valid Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization extension requests due to the temporary closure of Application Support Centers to the public.
Politico reported that though the administration has restricted foreign visitors from China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, and postponed hearings for immigrants wanting to remain in the U.S., it has also begun easing the process for companies looking to hire foreign workers on an H-1B visa or L visa, altering some paperwork requirements, including allowing electronic signatures and waiving the physical inspection of documents.
The DHS is expected to extend visas that are expiring but can’t be renewed because federal offices are closed. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf confirmed this week that he is considering that, among other changes, Politico reported.
“We’re looking at a … variety of different options that I think we will have soon, and it will be very beneficial,” Wolf said.
The business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had been pushing for temporary slots for immigrants coming to the U.S., saying companies were struggling to fill jobs as unemployment has fallen. Much of that has changed, though, after the coronavirus outbreak.
“Many immigrant workers are currently helping our nation fight the spread of Covid-19,” said Jon Baselice, the chamber’s executive director of immigration policy, citing medical professionals, scientists and agricultural workers. “Their contributions to our national well-being are critically important to our safety and security until we flatten the curve on this pandemic.”
Immigrant advocates have joined in the call for not restricting foreign labor during the current pandemic, the Politico report said.
“It’s never been more clear that the American economy depends on immigrants and immigration,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. “This is a community that is currently contributing on the front lines and is also able to come in and meet gaps in the labor force.”
Despite Trump’s campaign vow to reduce immigration, the number of immigrants with temporary visas has steadily increased during his presidency, reaching 925,000 in 2018, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
While there is no cap for the total number of temporary workers, there are annual limits on several of the dozen-plus visa categories. More than 1 million immigrants are allowed into the United States each year on a permanent basis, but only a fraction — 140,000 — come through employment categories.
The Trump administration has also worked to prioritize visa processing for medical workers, given America’s resource-strained health system.
Last Thursday, the State Department encouraged medical professionals seeking a work or exchange visitor visa to contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a visa appointment. Hours later, after some criticism, the department clarified that the person must already have an approved visa petition.
The State Department later announced it would also waive interviews for some temporary worker visas, saying the program is “essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority.”
DHS had announced before the pandemic that it planned to allow an additional 35,000 workers into the country on non-agricultural seasonal worker visas as it tried “to strike a careful balance that benefits American businesses and American workers.”
That move has now been put on hold after the catastrophic job losses in the US.
Some immigration groups and advocates are also petitioning the White House and the USCIS to give reprieve and show leniency to H-1B visa workers who lose jobs during this period. Allow them more time to look for a job elsewhere, relocate or to even move back to their country of origin.
Pandemic or not, the wave of H-1B visa workers, meanwhile, shows no signs of slowing down. Over 67% of the total 275,000 electronic registrations for the available 85,000 H-1B visas in fiscal year 2021 are from India, the USCIS said on April 1. Applicants will be selected after a lottery.
But a lot of immigrants who had a petition filed on their behalf, to work in the US later this year, have their own grievances to deal with because of a glitch in the USCIS e-registration system.
Forbes reported the USCIS mistakenly denied more than 100 – and possibly hundreds of – H-1B registrations this year, as duplicates that were not duplicates, the report said.
The problem first came to light on March 31, 2020, when attorneys started contacting the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
AILA received reports from at least 31 immigration attorneys, who reported 103 H-1B registrations were mistakenly rejected as duplicates, according to Diane Rish, associate director of government relations at AILA.
USCIS selected approximately 31% of the registrations submitted (85,000 of 275,000). That means, on average, for every 100 registrations USCIS mistakenly denied as a duplicate, the lives of 31 people who hoped to make their careers in America may have changed forever, analyzed Forbes. The number is likely much higher than 31.
For now, with the current economic chaos in the US likely to last for months, it’s hard to predict the future for most immigrants on visas, or even for those planning to emigrate here. The jobs some were petitioned for, might not exist anymore.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)