As the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak continues to spread through the United States, our immigration system can now count itself among the many industries affected. As an immigration lawyer who represents corporate and individual clients among all facets of our U.S. immigration system, from court appearances at the Executive Office of Immigration Review to filing visa applications with U.S. consulates in countries across the world, I thought it would be helpful to post an update of the current affects of the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of closures or deviations from business as usual.
Immigration Court Closures
As of March 18, 2020, all non-detained court appearances at Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) locations across the country have been postponed through April 10, until further notice, per the EOIR official Facebook page. This means that any person scheduled to appear in immigration court in a non-detained setting between March 18 and April 10 will have their hearing cancelled, and should expect to receive a hearing notice setting the new time, date, and location of the hearing. However, as of yet, detained immigration court hearings have not been postponed or cancelled, though I expect this decision to be revisited as COVID-19 cases continue to be reported.
In addition to Immigration Courts being affected, US Citizenship and Immigration Services offices across America have temporarily suspended in-person services until at least April 1, 2020, in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19, per a recent website update. This does not mean a systemwide shutdown of immigration services, rather, certain staff will continue to perform duties that do not require contact with the public, and they will consider emergency services for limited situations that may require in person contact. Any person with an interview or appointment on a previously filed application can expect to receive a notice rescheduling such event to a future date.
US Foreign Consulate Closures
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many foreign consulates have also decided to suspend the processing of routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services starting March 18 and until further notice. For a foreign national who was set to have a visa interview, they can expect to have the matter postponed until further notice. For American citizens abroad requiring help from the consulate such as passport assistance, consular birth abroad reports, and notarial services, such will be available on a limited basis, depending on the consulate. Consulates set to temporarily suspend visa services include U.S. consulates in Mexico, China, India, Korea, the Philippines among others. For specific consulate information, check the State Department official website for the latest updates and notices.
Presidential Proclamations on Travel
The President has signed various Presidential Proclamations restricting entry to the United States by foreign nationals of countries affected heavily by the coronavirus. On January 31, the President barred most foreign national who traveled to China within the past two weeks from entering the United States. On February 29, the President expanded coronavirus based travel restrictions to any alien present in Iran during the 14 day period preceding their attempted entry to the United States. On March 11, the President issued a proclamation restricting foreign nationals who had recently been in certain European countries from entering the United States. This did not apply to US citizens or lawful permanent residents. And on March 14, the President signed a proclamation restricting travel to the United States from foreign nationals who had recently been in the United Kingdom or Ireland, again US Citizens and lawful permanent residents are exempted.
This is new territory for all involved. As an attorney dealing exclusively in immigration law for the last ten years, I have never seen anything like this. The primary concern is health for all actors involved, and I believe the measures taken to suspend court hearings and appointments at USCIS and at consulates abroad were the right moves. However, as of this moment, the detained immigration docket continues to move forward, exposing countless foreign nationals, attorneys, judges, government and court employees, and interpreters who are often required to attend these hearings in person. Aside from exposure concerns, another fear is that individuals who have their hearings rescheduled and have moved or have not retained immigration counsel for their proceedings may end up confused about the new time and location of their hearings, which could lead to the issuance of removal orders for failing to attend their hearings, even if done so unintentionally. Given this uncharted territory and these uncertain times, it would be wise for anyone affected by the recent and drastic changes in our immigration system to reach out to a competent immigration attorney with any concerns about the status of their case.