The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in numerous presidential proclamations restricting travel and entry into the United States. Likewise, since the pandemic began, the criteria for “national interest exceptions” (NIEs) has also evolved. On March 2, 2021, the U.S. Department of State issued updated criteria for NIEs relating to certain travelers from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland. Given the frequency of the changes, it can be difficult to track the current state of these matters. The following information is a summary of the latest updates with regard to U.S. travel restrictions.
On December 1, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs that had requested to set aside two new regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The two rules, both published as interim final rules, changed the way Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) prevailing wages are calculated and changed the definition of a “specialty occupation”. As interim final rules, the DOL and the DHS bypassed the traditional, lengthier notice and comment rulemaking process under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), with both agencies invoking the good cause exception and citing to the emergent circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On October 1, 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law a stopgap spending measure to fund the U.S. government through December 11, 2020. The spending measure includes a provision titled “Emergency Stopgap USCIS Stabilization Act,” which authorizes U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to expand the premium processing program and to increase program fees.
On August 12, 2020, the U.S. Department of State issued guidance on scenarios that may qualify for a “national interest exception” under Presidential Proclamation 10052 of June 22, 2020 (“Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak”) and Presidential Proclamation 10014 of April 22, 2020 (“Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak”). Citing economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump issued the proclamations and temporarily suspended the entry of certain foreign nationals into the United States. Although both proclamations referenced exceptions for individuals “whose entry would be in the national interest,” formal guidance had not been released prior to this announcement.
On August 3, 2020, the Trump Administration issued an executive order (EO) directing the secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security to “take action … to protect United States workers from any adverse effects on wages and working conditions caused by the employment of H-1B [workers].”
On July 24, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) issued updated guidance for international students pursing education programs in the United States. The follow-up guidance states that active students in F-1 and M-1 status, as well as schools certified by SEVP, should abide by SEVP guidance originally issued in March 2020, enabling schools and students to engage in distance learning in excess of regulatory limits during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
On July 14, 2020, by means of executive order, the Trump administration announced that it will no longer recognize Hong Kong as a distinct autonomous region as compared to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
On July 14, 2020, the U.S. Department of State announced that U.S. consulates and embassies around the world have begun a phased resumption of routine visa services. The Department of State did not provide a specific timeline for the resumption of routine visa services, stating instead that the schedule will depend on local conditions at each consular post.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has agreed to rescind a proposed rule that would have required international students on F-1 and M-1 visas to either attend in-person classes at U.S. colleges and universities or face having to leave the United States.
On July 6, 2020, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced plans to update its online study policies for F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant students for the fall 2020 semester. According to the proposed policies, SEVP intends to prohibit F-1 and M-1 students from taking a fully online course load while in the United States during the fall 2020 semester.
On April 24, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it intends to reopen field offices, asylum offices, and application support centers (ASCs) beginning on or after June 4, 2020.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced that it will consider granting a second 30-day period of Satisfactory Departure to Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers who were already granted Satisfactory Departure but who are unable to return to their home countries due to COVID-19.
On April 13, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, data entry and the generation of receipt notices would be delayed until at least May 1, 2020, for fiscal year (FY) 2021 H-1B cap-subject petitions.
On April 2, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it is holding off on plans to issue additional H-2B visas. DHS had previously agreed to make an additional 35,000 visas available to seasonal employers after the visa quota (or cap) had been met for the second half of fiscal year (FY) 2020.
On March 27, 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, intended to stimulate the national economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Act provides $2 trillion in direct financial assistance, including paid leave, unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, and rebates to eligible individuals. Immigrants and foreign nationals in the United States may be eligible for some or all of the listed benefits, depending on the circumstances.
On March 30, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the following policy updates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 23, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) published answers to frequently asked questions by Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) stakeholders about the impact of COVID-19 on SEVP-certified schools and students on F and M visas.
On March 27, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it has completed the initial H-1B selection process for fiscal year (FY) 2021. This was the first time USCIS used an electronic registration system to conduct the selection lottery. USCIS plans to notify petitioners with selected registrations by March 31, 2020.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices will remain closed to the public until at least April 7, 2020. The closure applies to routine in-person services at USCIS field offices, asylum offices, and Application Support Centers (ASCs), although emergency services may be available in limited circumstances.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on March 20, 2020, that it will relax the in-person verification requirements of the Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification for employers operating remotely due to COVID-19. Beginning March 20, 2020, employers will not be required to review an employee’s identity and/or employment authorization documents while in the employee’s physical presence.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Government of India has issued an order prohibiting all inbound international flights to India beginning March 22, 2020. The current ban is set to expire on March 29, 2020, but is subject to change.
On March 20, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the immediate and temporary suspension of premium processing services for all Forms I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker and Forms I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers due to COVID-19 pandemic. The suspension includes new premium processing requests for H-1B petitions, including cap-subject petitions for fiscal year (FY) 2021, and supersedes the FY 2021 premium processing schedule announced on March 16, 2020.
As of March 21, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will accept electronically reproduced original signatures in lieu of “wet” signatures on all benefit forms and documents. USCIS implemented the temporary change as a result of the COVID-19 national emergency, and the change only applies to signatures.
The U.S. Department of State announced on March 18, 2020, that it has suspended all routine visa services, including immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments, in most countries worldwide.
Effective March 18, 2020, all U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices are temporarily closed to the public. USCIS has suspended all routine in-person services at its field offices, asylum offices, and Application Support Centers (ASCs) to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.