COVID-19 has been found in at least 185 countries and territories in the world. In the United States, as of this writing, more than 74 thousand people have died, accounting for one-third of COVID-19 deaths in the world. Schools, businesses, churches and sporting events are shut down. What we are experiencing now is the opposite of normal times. So why should the normal rules and regulations apply at this time? Many do not. The Internal Revenue Service is granting blanket extensions for taxpayers to file returns, insurance companies are not canceling automobile policies for failure to pay premiums, and some mortgage and rental companies are not seeking foreclosures or evictions.
However, at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), little has changed. Yes, USCIS isn’t doing in-person interviews, and has allowed certain forms to be filed with photocopy signatures, but the administration has not addressed the most significant issue: The legal nonimmigrant status of many foreign nationals will lapse or expire during this crisis and USCIS has not offered any blanket extension of their status or suspended deadlines for filing immigration petitions or responding to requests for evidence deadlines.
Who are these “nonimmigrants” who need extensions? Where in the system are they, what are they doing in the U.S., and from what countries did they come? They are university students, professionals, including nurses and doctors, and many other individuals who have been working and contributing to our economy, such as agricultural workers, telecommunications experts and teachers.. Many graduated from U.S. universities and received one year of Optional Practical Training (OPT) status, or another two years of OPT because they have a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) degree. Many of these students will lose their status as their visas expire June through September of this year.
Now imagine that you are in a foreign country and a pandemic occurs. You are only authorized to stay in that country until a set date in time but if there was a huge crisis in that country and indeed the world, you might expect exceptions to the rules. This is a sentiment felt by countless individuals across the U.S. Foreign students do not want to jeopardize their long-term prospects by letting their status expire and remaining in the U.S. unlawfully. However, what if travel to their home countries is dangerous for their health or even impossible now? Flights are cancelled or countries are simply not accepting travelers. In general, foreign travel from the U.S. is extremely difficult at present and places the individual required to travel at risk of exposure to the disease.
In limited instances, USCIS has indicated that it will consider each nonimmigrant’s case individually and that after the fact it may grant some relief, if warranted. This “after the fact” potential forgiveness does not bring certainty to those now in limbo. When we are already in a recognized crisis situation, why should discretionary post-situational relief be the only available remedy?
The most ironic part of this situation is that many of the students on OPT status are nurses who have graduated from U.S. nursing schools. They are licensed to practice nursing in the states in which they live and some even have an immigrant petition (I-140) approved. However, visa numbers for EB-3 have retrogressed so they can’t yet file for adjustment. Talk about a perfect storm. The U.S. has a recognized shortage of nurses and the country needs these nurses now. Even the Trump Administration has excepted nurses and physicians from its 60-day ban on entry into the U.S. Surely, USCIS could take measures to provide relief for nurses and physicians, by lessening petition requirements and allowing for expedited processing of their cases. Even Congress has recognized a need to address the need for foreign healthcare workers to help fight COVID-19 and have announced bipartisan legislation to recapture 40,000 immigrant visas for this population.
Other issues for students exist as well. All kinds of regulations require students to attend school regularly and to work regularly when they are in OPT status. With universities shut down (except for on-line learning) students simply can’t comply with the rules. If the employers they work for in OPT status close their business, the students may accrue enough time unemployed to violate their status.
Why should USCIS pretend that we are dealing with normal times? And as they thus far have refused to act, despite repeated attempts at communication and finally litigation, Congress must address this issue in a clear, fair manner for the foreign nationals in our country. If Americans were in another country, we would certainly expect reasonable treatment for ourselves.