As Immigration offices reopen, here’s what every applicant needs to know

By Terry Kaufman

On, June 4, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reopened many of its offices.

Here is some essential information for those who have been anxiously waiting to learn their status these past few months, as the region starts to reopen from the COVID-19 pandemic response.

“Coronavirus may have stopped or slowed the progress of some applications and petitions, but it also provided some opportunities for workers with temporary visas,” said Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer Petro Kostiv. “Not everyone needs to rush to the immigration office on the first day. When you do go, you need to be prepared for some changes.”

First, USCIS will require all petitioners and visitors to wear face masks that cover both the nose and mouth, otherwise they will be denied entry into the office.

The agency will supply hand sanitizer, but applicants should bring their own pens — black or blue ballpoint ink only. And those with appointments may only enter a facility 15 minutes before the scheduled time. “Also, if you have symptoms of coronavirus, you should stay home,” Kostiv said.

Here’s what you need to know to move to the next step or to start a new application or petition.

In the following situations, timeliness is critical.

Temporary protected status. TPS noncitizens who can adjust their status should do so before the designation ends. For example, roughly 250,000 Salvadorians have TPS, the largest group from a single country. El Salvador has been designated for TPS until Jan. 4, 2021. Many Salvadorans qualify for lawful permanent status but have failed to take advantage of the opportunity to gain permanent residence. “Salvadorians should determine now if they qualify and apply as quickly as possible,” said Kostiv.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The DACA program may be terminated this year, says Kostiv, so he urges affected individuals to attempt to renew their employment authorization (EAD).

Asylum. Those seeking asylum are generally required to file their applications within one year of entering the United States, but “this administration has taken a very hardline stance on asylum applications,” said Kostiv. “It’s a complicated issue. Individuals that have suffered persecution from their home country will need to carefully evaluate their case and decide if it’s worth taking a risk.”

Preference petitions. If you have a preference petition, such as U.S. citizens petitioning for family members, submit your petition as quickly as possible to obtain the earliest priority date you can.

For the following processes, consider these things:

H-2B temporary nonagricultural workers. Employers may now hire individuals with approved temporary labor certifications for positions essential to the food supply chain. Certain H-2B employees may be able to retain their status beyond the maximum three-year period.

F-1 students. Recent college graduates are facing a difficult job market. “USCIS has not extended the unemployment period for their optional practical training (OPT),” Kostiv explained. “Noncitizen students can still seek unpaid internships related to their field of study, start their own business or possibly enroll in another study program.”

Nonimmigrant visas. If your status is soon expiring, you should apply for an extension. Generally, individuals that enter the United States with a visitor’s visa have a difficult time receiving an extension, but Kostiv said that “given the extraordinary circumstances caused by COVID-19, USCIS will take a softer stance on extensions.”

Medical workers. If you provide services related to COVID-19 and you entered the country on a J-1 physician program, it may be easier to obtain a waiver of the two-year foreign residency requirement.

Asylum. If you’ve already applied for asylum, expect to wait. “Asylum offices schedule interviews based on filing order, and some offices have backlogs of more than two years,” Kostiv said. If your application has been pending more than 180 days, you are eligible for an Employment Authorization Card. You can continue to renew your card until USCIS issues a decision on your application. If you have children turning 21, the Child Status Protection Act will lock the age of your child to the age at the time the application was filed. USCIS uses a three-tier priority system, but if you have an emergency you can place an urgent request for an interview.

Consular processes. Anyone whose appointment was cancelled at a U.S. Embassy due to COVID-19, but who has urgent or extenuating circumstances, can contact the U.S. Embassy to request an urgent reschedule appointment. Individual embassies have their own procedures, and the volume of cases will determine how they handle those requests. Unless the situation is urgent, Kostiv said you should wait until the National Visa Center or the U.S. Embassy contacts you.

Prepare for higher fees in the near future

Be prepared for fee increases by 21% on average, Kostiv cautions. Some applications will go up much more. Naturalization will increase from $640 to $1,170 (not including biometrics fees for collecting documents and screenings), and adjustment applications will go up from $1,225 to $2,195.

With the continued uncertainty about how USCIS will manage the COVID-19 backlog, those dealing with immigration matters should try to remain patient, urged Kostiv, who has offices in the U.S., Mexico, Central America and Europe. “Hopefully, USCIS will streamline certain processes and make decisions without having to interview each and every individual applicant.” For additional information, log on to the USCIS Response to COVID-19 webpage or go to the American Immigration Council site.