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The Changing Face of Family-Based U.S. Immigration Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

26 Jun

The global coronavirus has taken an unprecedented toll on intending immigrants navigating through the U.S. immigration system seeking to acquire lawful permanent residency through their U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident qualifying relatives.  

For those awaiting an immigrant visa from outside the U.S., this has resulted in at least several additional months of separation from loved ones — countries apart. Those inside the United States face adjudication backlogs and potential changes to their immigration strategies as a result of the uncertainty of when they may be able to travel internationally and whether they may be allowed to return.  

Lingering Effects of Suspension of USCIS Routine In-Person Services 

On March 18, 2020, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) suspended in-person services at its Field Offices and Application Support Centers. While in-person services have resumed at some locations, USCIS is not yet back to full operation. This has resulted in the cancellation of biometric appointments and in-person interviews for Adjustment of Status and Naturalization applicants. As a result, increased delays in the adjudication of family-based benefits are expected to continue.   

Uncertainty over the timeline for border re-opening, coupled with concerns  about potential visa overstay or denial of extension of status applications has created significant anxiety. Many immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, currently visiting the United States, are deciding to file applications for Adjustment of Status. These individuals will likely experience increasingly lengthy processing times which could be as long as 41 months in some locations due to the government’s backlogs. Further, suspended biometrics appointments have delayed the issuance of the Employment Authorization Documents, which permit an individual to lawfully work while their applications to adjust status are pending.  

For Lawful Permanent Residents, suspended naturalization interviews and ceremonies have left thousands just short of the finish line and could prevent many from voting in the 2020 Presidential Election. 

Effects Presidential Proclamation & U.S. Consulates/Embassies Reduced Operations 

President Trump’s April 22 proclamation suspended for 60 days the issuance of immigrant visas at U.S. Consulates/Embassies.  His new proclamation of June 22 extended the suspension through December 31, 2020. The proclamation explicitly states that, in addition to the immediate health risk, this order is justified by the need to protect American workers who have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus.  

The  suspension does not apply to the spouses or children, under 21 years old, of United States citizens or members of the United States Armed Forces, but it does apply to the following family-sponsored preference categories:

  1. Parents of United States citizens; 
  2. Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; 
  3. Spouses and children of lawful permanent residents; 
  4. Unmarried children of lawful permanent residents; 
  5. Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; and 
  6. Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens. 

At this time, U.S. Consulates/Embassies worldwide remain closed for visa services or continue to operate with reduced staff. Therefore, despite the presidential proclamation, currently it is not possible to apply for most immigrant visas. It remains to be seen when U.S. Consulates/Embassies will fully reopen but for now the June 22 proclamation extending the suspension of immigrant visa issuance through the end of the year further frustrates families seeking to reunite regardless of consular openings.    

As a result of the suspension of normal visa services at consular posts and the extension of the president’s proclamation, family-based immigration is slowing down.  While slowing and reducing legal immigration in such manner has been a long-acknowledged goal of the Trump Administration, it took a pandemic to supply the pretext for implementing the restrictive policies that have put that goal within reach.