With many employees now working remotely or from home, and with businesses’ operations significantly impacted by government restrictions and social distancing efforts, the American Immigration Lawyers Association has engaged in advocacy efforts to encourage U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) to make accommodations for these unique circumstances, and alleviate some of the burden on applicants and other USCIS customers. Below are some recent steps taken by USCIS to address its own staffing/workload issues during the outbreak, as well as to mitigate some of the complications that have arisen during the COVID-19 outbreak faced by applicants and other stakeholders:

  • Government office closures for visa/immigration services: The Harris Beach immigration blog has previously addressed the closure of U.S. consulates and embassies worldwide and the suspension of all non-emergency visa services. Similarly, USCIS has closed all of its domestic offices to the public, including local field offices, asylum offices, and Application Support Centers. This nationwide closure, initially slated to last until April 1, was recently extended until May 4, with further extensions possible. All scheduled in-person interviews, biometrics appointments, and naturalization oath ceremonies during this period are canceled. Applicants who had appointments scheduled during this time will receive new appointment notices from USCIS. We recommend that applicants and other USCIS customers frequently consult USCIS’s Office Closings webpage to ensure that the appropriate USCIS field office has not been closed.
  • Automatic extension of deadlines to respond to Requests for Evidence and Notices of Intent to Deny: Typically, when USCIS issues a Request for Evidence, an applicant/petitioner is given 90 days in which to submit a response; for Notices of Intent to Deny, the response period is 30 days. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS announced that for applicants and petitioners who receive an RFE or NOID dated between 3/1/20 and 5/1/20, they will receive an additional 60 days in which to submit a timely response; in other words, any responses submitted within 60 calendar days after the response deadline will be considered by USCIS before any action is taken. USCIS subsequently expanded this flexibility to cover appeals to the Administrative Appeals Office, which typically must be filed within 30 days of the date the underlying petition/application was denied. For denials dated between March 1, 2020 and May 1, 2020, petitioners/applicants will be given up to 60 calendar days from the date of the decision to submit a timely appeal to the AAO.
  • Reuse of previously submitted biometrics for Form I-765 applications to extend employment authorization: USCIS 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 (ASC) to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Applicants who had an appointment scheduled with an ASC on or after the March 18 closure or who filed an I-765 extension will have their application processed using previously submitted biometrics. This will remain in effect until ASCs resume normal operations.
  • Acceptance of scanned/photocopied signatures on petition/application forms: Under normal circumstances, most USCIS forms require the petitioner/applicant and the attorney of record to sign the petition/application forms with an original “wet” signature and to submit the originally signed form with the benefit request. USCIS has announced that, due to the ongoing COVID-19 National Emergency, it will accept all benefit forms and documents with reproduced original signatures. This means that a document may be scanned, faxed, photocopied, or similarly reproduced provided that the copy must be of an original document containing an original handwritten signature. Individuals or entities submitting forms to USCIS are advised, however, that they should retain the original documents containing the “wet” signature, as these may be requested at any time by USCIS.
  • Suspension of Premium Processing: On Friday, March 20, 2020, without any advance notice, USCIS suddenly announced a total and indefinite suspension of premium processing service for essentially all I-129 and I-140 petition classifications, including H-1B, H-2B, L-1, O-1, TN, EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, and others. There has been no indication of when premium processing will be reinstated, making it more important than ever for employers and beneficiaries to plan ahead to the extent possible and file visa petitions as soon as practicable.

Because of the highly fluid and rapidly changing nature of the current situation, we encourage employers and employees alike to contact a member of the Harris Beach immigration practice group with any questions particular to the challenges faced by U.S. visa holders as this situation evolves. Please also visit our firm’s  COVID-19  response page.

Our Immigration Law Practice Group includes immigration attorneys that work across New York state in our Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Long Island, New York City, Rochester and Syracuse offices. Our immigration lawyers focus on strategies – including immigrant visas for permanent U.S. resident status and temporary visas for foreign nationals – to ensure that employers are able to hire, transfer, and retain the brightest and best non-U.S. talent.

This alert does not purport to be a substitute for advice of counsel on specific matters.

Harris Beach has offices throughout New York state, including Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Long Island, New York City, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse and White Plains, as well as New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey.