In a matter of weeks, the United States went from a handful of confirmed cases to the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. The alarming rise in cases and stress on the American healthcare system has led to widespread business shutdowns, layoffs, border closures and cancelled college semesters.
While these may be temporary inconveniences for American citizens, they represent serious issues for non-immigrant visa holders who rely on employment or schooling to legally reside in the United States. Closed borders and mandatory quarantines are also preventing temporary visa-holders from leaving the country before their visa expires.
So, what does all of this mean for non-immigrant visa-holders who are at risk of violating the terms of their visa due to the COVID-19 crisis?
The good news is that USCIS is aware of these issues and has contingencies for special situations in place to address them. With the help of an experienced immigration attorney, you can easily file the right USCIS applications to ensure that these unforeseen circumstances don’t result in visa violations or deportation.
Following is a brief overview of some of the most common questions that we’re hearing from non-immigrant visa holders in Arizona. If you have any additional questions or need assistance filing the right paperwork with USCIS, call the JacksonWhite Immigration Law Team at (480) 626-2388 to discuss your unique situation.
What if I’m Unable to Leave the Country Before My Visa Expires?
Temporary non-immigrant visas always come with an expiration date, and failure to depart the United States before that expiration date can lead to major issues. In the short run, visa-holders may be subject to detainment and deportation. In the long run, it can make it extremely difficult to be approved for another US visa down the road.
Unfortunately, there are thousands of non-immigrant visa holders who are currently trapped in the United States due to the COVID-19 crisis, unable to leave the country before their visa expires. Some of these visitors are already past their expiration date, while others are days or weeks away from a looming deadline that they can’t possibly make.
The good news is that of all the issues that COVID-19 is causing for visa-holders in the United States, this is the easiest to address. All you need to do is apply for an extension or change of status due to a special situation that prevented your departure, and USCIS will take your circumstances into consideration.
It’s best to file for an extension or change of status before your visa expires, but if you’re unable to file the petition before your authorized period of admission expires, USCIS may excuse the delay as long as it’s due to extraordinary circumstances beyond your control.
What qualifies as extraordinary circumstances beyond your control? Petitions are evaluated case-by-case, but generally speaking it may include closed borders, limited flights, mandatory quarantine imposed by a healthcare professional, hospitalization, and being unable to travel due to exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
Fee Waivers Due to Economic Hardship
USCIS always considers fee waivers for applicants who are experiencing unforeseen economic hardship, so the same rules apply during the COVID-19 crisis. If you’re unable to pay the required fees for your petition for extension or change of status, you’ll need to request a fee waiver using Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver.
How do USCIS Field Office Closures Affect Scheduled Interviews?
USCIS field offices are temporarily closed to the public from March 18 through May 3, and there’s a chance that closure may be extended based on guidance from the federal government. During this temporary closure, any visa interviews that don’t qualify as an emergency will need to be rescheduled.
If you have a scheduled interview, the local USCIS field office will send you a letter confirming that your interview is cancelled along with instructions on how to reschedule after the temporary closure is lifted. Note that the field offices and central call centers are still staffed, so you can call with any questions and rest assured that USCIS staff are still processing petitions.
Severe Economic Hardship to F-1 Students
Student visas come with a number of strict rules, one of which is that F-1 students cannot work off-campus. However, if you’re experiencing severe economic hardship due to unforeseen circumstances beyond your control, you may petition USCIS for permission to work off-campus.
Some examples of qualifying circumstances that may permit off-campus employment include:
- Inordinate increases in living costs or tuition
- Loss of financial aid or on-campus employment through no fault of your own
- Medical bills
- Substantial fluctuations in exchange rates and currency value
- Other unexpected and substantial expenses
If you qualify under one of these examples, you’ll need to submit Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, along with a copy of your Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. Your on-campus advisor may be able to assist you with this, or you can work with an immigration attorney.
Special Student Relief
Another program available to F-1 students is the Special Student Relief program, which suspends certain regulatory requirements by the secretary of Homeland Security for F-1 students from countries that are experiencing emergent circumstances (including the COVID-19 pandemic). Under this program, F-1 students may be eligible to apply for off-campus employment authorization if all of the following apply:
- You have active F-1 visa status
- You are a citizen of a country specified in a Federal Register notice
- You have been lawfully present in the US for the period specified in the notice
- You have properly reported to your DSO and have been enrolled since the special situation
- You are experiencing severe economic hardship
As with the previously discussed program for F-1 students, you’ll need to submit Form I-765 with your Form I-20 and any other necessary supporting documents.
Layoffs are becoming a painful reality for workers all across the United States, but the issue is particularly problematic for non-immigrant visa holders whose legal status relies on qualifying employment. Whether you are temporarily furloughed or permanently laid off, this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Non-immigrants who find themselves in this situation will need to find alternative employment as quickly as possible, and they’ll need to work with an immigration attorney to ensure their new employment is properly verified and documented in a new Form I-9. If you’re unable to find alternative employment in time, you may be required to leave the United States and apply for a new visa from your home country — in which case the special circumstances regarding extensions and change of status apply for those who are unable to leave the country due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Immigration attorneys Pace Rawlins and Natalia Villar of JacksonWhite Law are ready to help you get your visa extended due to the COVID-19 travel ban. Contact us as soon as possible!
Call our Immigration team at (480) 626-2388 to discuss your case today.
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