There have been more than 96 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide as of January 22, including at least 24 million cases in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.
The below updates and FAQ responses about the pandemic’s impact on immigration matters include general advice from Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm and are based on the current state of the law.
It is important to note that not all advice may apply to each specific situation or set of circumstances. Individuals should consult with experienced immigration counsel for relevant guidance.
Executive orders extended
In late December, former President Donald Trump extended a pair of proclamations that bar individuals from entering the U.S. as immigrants and that also suspend entry of certain employment-based nonimmigrant visa holders. The two orders will now be in effect until March 31, 2021.
Trump claimed the extensions were necessary because “the effects of COVID-19 on the United States labor market and on the health of American communities is a matter of ongoing national concern.”
President Joe Biden has the option to terminate the bans after he took office on Jan 20. Biden, however, has not commented publicly about his intentions.
The bipartisan COVID relief bill signed into law in late December provides for the issuance of one-time payments, commonly known as “stimulus checks,” to help the country recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
The bill enables U.S. citizens and green card holders to receive $600 in aid, even if they filed a joint tax return with an individual using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). That group will also be eligible to receive $600 in aid per dependent child. This was not a provision included in the CARES Act, which became law in late March.
Biden has also proposed additional legislation to potentially increase the stimulus amount to eligible individuals by another $1,400 per person in 2021. That proposal, however, requires approval by both houses of Congress, which is far from certain.
“Nonresident aliens” remain ineligible to receive stimulus checks.
What are the current restrictions in place while traveling abroad and re-entering the U.S.?
Traveling abroad and re-entering the United States currently remains complex because of the restrictions, orders and bans implemented worldwide in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, Biden signed an executive order on Jan. 21 outlining further guidelines for travelers seeking to enter the United States from a foreign country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also issued an order mandating that all air travelers into the country provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days of boarding a flight. That measure will go into effect on Jan. 26.
Individuals considering traveling abroad and/or returning to the United States should consult with experienced immigration counsel before finalizing plans.
Is DHS still granting I-9 flexibility?
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to allow some flexibility regarding the completion of the Form I-9.
The flexibility, which was originally put in place in March, has been extended to at least Jan. 31, 2021. It applies only to employers and workplaces that are operating entirely remotely, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“If there are employees physically present at a work location, no exceptions are being implemented at this time for in-person verification of identity and employment eligibility documentation for Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification,” ICE announced in a press release in late December.
Employers “with employees taking physical proximity precautions due to COVID-19” will not be required to review employees’ identity and employment authorization documents in person. Instead, employers can inspect and retain those forms via remote methods, which include a video link, fax or email, within three business days, for the purposes of completing Section 2 of the form.
When such employers resume normal operations, all employees who were onboarded using remote verification must report to their employer within three business days for in-person verification of identity and employment eligibility documentation for Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification.
The employer must also note the delay in physical inspection by following the guidance from DHS and writing “COVID-19” in the Section 2, Additional Information field, along with “documents physically inspected” and the date of physical inspection.
Are the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico still closed?
The United States’ land borders with both Canada and Mexico remain closed.
Both borders were originally shut down for “non-essential travel” in mid-March in an attempt to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Those measures have been extended multiple times throughout 2020 and into 2021, most recently until Feb. 21, 2021.
“Non-essential travel” is defined as any travel related to tourism or recreation. Supply chains between the countries have not been affected.
Air travel from the United States to both Canada and Mexico may still be possible under certain circumstances.
Is there any updated guidance for international students taking online classes?
Guidance for international students taking an increased number of online courses because of the COVID-19 pandemic will remain the same for the spring 2021 semester.
The pandemic forced many colleges and universities to transition to remote-only instruction during the 2019-20 academic year. In response, ICE implemented temporary exceptions allowing international students to take more online classes than normally permitted.
ICE originally sought to end that directive this summer, however, after multiple lawsuits, the agency withdrew the memo, allowing the guidance to continue into the fall of 2020. Those same measures will also be in effect in the spring 2021 semester.
“Nonimmigrant students should continue to abide by SEVP guidance originally issued in March 2020,” DHS Student and Exchange Visitor Program spokesperson Carissa Cutrell told Inside Higher Ed in December. “The guidance enables schools and students to engage in distance learning in excess of regulatory limits due to the public health emergency generated by COVID-19.”
The attorneys at Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm are monitoring the situation closely and will alert clients as the situation evolves.