On March 18, 2020, United States Customs and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) temporarily suspended in-person services at their field offices, asylum offices and application support centers (ASCs) in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19). USCIS, however, continued to accept petitions, applications and requests while the offices were closed, and continued to perform all work not requiring in-person services.
USCIS began reopening certain domestic offices for naturalization ceremonies, interviews and initial biometrics intakes on June 4, 2020. In evaluating how and when to reopen individual domestic offices, USCIS is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to protect their workforce and the public.
On June 18, 2020, representatives from USCIS delivered a webinar titled “USCIS Offices Resume In-Person Services Engagement.” The webinar outlined new general guidelines for USCIS facilities, screening procedures, and specific procedures for USCIS field offices, ASCs, and refugee, asylum and international operations. The following is a summary of those new procedures:
- General Guidelines for USCIS Facilities
- These guidelines apply to all USCIS facilities, but each office’s individual plan may vary.
- USCIS is following the Guidelines for Opening Up American Again, a three-phased approach based on the advice of public health experts (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines).
- USCIS’s phased approach to reopening was informed by industry best practices regarding social distancing, protective equipment, sanitation, and disinfection of common and high-traffic areas.
- Visitors may not enter the facility more than fifteen (15) minutes before their appointment time (except for naturalization appointments, for which visitors may enter thirty (30) minutes prior).
- No walk-in appointments are permitted.
- USCIS will provide hand sanitizer at entries.
- Members of the public over the age of two (2) must wear facial coverings that cover both the mouth and nose.
- There will be markings and physical barriers in the facility, and visitors should pay close attention to these signs to ensure they follow social distancing guidelines.
- Applicants and visitors may also have to answer health screening questions before entering a facility.
- Applicants and visitors should bring their own pens.
- To limit the number of people in the waiting room, applicants with scheduled appointments may only be accompanied by:
1) Attorneys/authorized representatives;
2) Interpreters (interpreters must be available by phone for field office interviews, and in person for asylum interviews);
3) Parents, legal guardians or trusted adults, if the applicant being interviewed is a minor;
4) Immediate family members listed as dependents on the asylum application or interview notice; and/or
5) An individual assisting a person with disabilities.
- Visitors may be screened before they enter a USCIS facility. If the visitor answers “yes” to any of the three screening questions, or refuses to wear a face covering in accordance with USCIS policy, the visitor will not be allowed to enter the USCIS facility.
- The screening questions are:
1) Do you have any symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, fever, or difficulty breathing?
2) In the past 14 days, have you been in close contact with anyone known or suspected to have COVID-19?
3) In the past 14 days, has your health care provider or a public health authority instructed you to self-isolate or self-quarantine?
- If you feel sick, please do not come to the office. Follow the instructions on your appointment notice to reschedule your appointment for when you are healthy. There is no penalty for rescheduling your appointment if you are sick.
- Field Offices
- All USCIS field offices are reducing the number of interviews to allow time for cleaning and reduce waiting room occupancy.
- Visitors are limited to the applicant, one representative, and one family member or individual providing disability accommodations.
- USCIS field offices will send notices to applicants and petitioners with previously-scheduled appointments, naturalization ceremonies and interviews. Appointment notices will include information on safety precautions that visitors to USCIS facilities must follow.
- Interviews may be conducted by video with an officer in one room and the applicant in another room.
- Naturalization ceremonies may be shorter to limit exposure to those in attendance. Attendance is limited to the naturalization candidate and individuals who provide disability accommodations.
- Follow the instructions on the appointment notice and/or call the USCIS Contact Center (800.375.5283) as soon as possible to reschedule if any of the following apply:
1) Feeling ill (for any reason, not just related to COVID-19);
2) Had contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 within the past two (2) weeks; or
3) At heightened risk due to age or an underlying health condition.
- There is no penalty for requesting to reschedule an appointment or naturalization ceremony.
- Those who had other appointments must reschedule through the USCIS Contact Center (uscis.gov/contactcenter) once field offices are open to the public. Before calling the USCIS Contact Center at the number above, check to see if the respective office has been reopened at www.uscis.gov/about-us/uscis-office-closings.
- Application Support Centers
- ASCs will begin a phased reopening on July 13, 2020.
- USCIS will automatically reschedule ASC appointments that were cancelled due to the temporary office closure. Individuals will receive a new appointment letter in the mail.
- ASC appointment notices will now include a worksheet to be completed before arriving at the appointment. The worksheet is used to facilitate the biometric collection process and will be returned to the applicant at the end of biometric collection (it does not need to be saved).
- Applicants will only be processed on the day and time of their appointment, with exceptions for military members.
- Social distancing protocols will be followed at all times within the ASC, and biometrics will be captured with both the applicant’s and employee’s safety in mind.
- The applicant will be requested to remove their face covering for a brief time in order to confirm identity and during the photo capture process.
- Refugee, Asylum and International Operations
- Asylum offices are conducting video-facilitated interviews where the interview officer sits in one room, and the applicant and any attorney or interpreter sit in separate rooms.
- The interpreter must be in person for the interview.
- Affirmative asylum interview applicants must bring: 1) all immediate family members listed as dependents on the application; and 2) an interpreter, if the applicant does not speak English.
- Additionally, a representative, witness, individual providing disability accommodations, or “trusted adult” (if the applicant is a minor) may attend the interview.
- Pending asylum applicants can check their case status online using their receipt number.
- Contact the asylum offices by email, mail, or phone. The offices are not accepting walk-in inquiries.
USCIS will adjust the foregoing protocols, if necessary, in its ongoing effort to protect its workforce and the public. For more information and further updates on USCIS office procedures, visit www.uscis.gov/coronavirus.
About the Author:
Ian Nesteruk is a Member in the firm’s Phoenix office. He practices in the area of immigration law, representing corporate and individual clients in connection with non-immigrant employment-based visas, immigrant employment-based visas, and family-based immigration. He has experience in a range of non-immigrant employment-based classifications including H, TN, E, O and P visas. His immigrant employment-based experience is primarily in the technology industry and includes recruitment-based cases, outstanding researcher and extraordinary ability petitions, and national interest waivers. You may reach Ian at 602-889-5358 or INesteruk@dickinsonwright.com and you may visit his bio here.