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Whether you’re from a red state or blue state, one thing is undeniably true, all politics aside: over 103,000 human beings have died in the United States since the end of February as a result of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (or COVID-19). That’s a massive amount of human loss in a very short period of time. I find that very hard to process.
Not that there’s any equivalency, there’s also been a vast amount of change in our personal and professional worlds. On the personal side, many if not most of us are working remotely, if we’re working at all, and our professional lives are now often interwoven with our personal lives as we manage work-life in a family setting. For some of us, that will soon be changing.
I have been fortunate to be able to go to an office every day. There’s no one else here. So while my work life is a bit lonely, I can say for sure that I am able to get work done without four boys running, yelling, complaining, laughing, and sometimes even crying in the background. Those of you who know me personally know that my wife is the mother of the year, every day of the year.
And what of my work? Immigration law is challenging enough in “normal” times, with the law itself, not to mention the myriad of changes that happen often daily. During this COVID-19 pandemic, however, the changes have not only been often, they’ve been dramatic as well.
Although the “real” news has reported the President’s Proclamation restricting immigrant visa issuance, as a practical matter, all visa processing by the Department of State (“DOS”), as well as the adjudication of many immigration benefits here inside the United States by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”), have practically stopped (or at least are now very delayed and backlogged). In addition, entry into the United States along our northern and southern borders, including by asylum seekers coming from the south (despite being told otherwise), has also been restricted. Thousands and thousands of low risk noncitizens are also in immigration detention despite the reported very high risk of COVID-19 transmission in jails, prisons, and federal detention centers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) uses to hold noncitizens. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the suspension of almost all non-detained immigration court hearings, and has also limited the normal functioning of those other courts that remain open.
Any one of these changes would be dramatic for our clients in ordinary times. But all four of them at once? And during a pandemic when everyone is stressed out from being cooped up indoors for months, perhaps out of work, and perhaps also losing a family member to coronavirus?
Add to all this that President Trump, and his minions like Stephen Miller, have used the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue policy changes, mostly by regulation and proclamation, that his administration has failed to accomplish by legislation or in the courts during his presidency (e.g., eliminating the ability for noncitizens to pursue asylum at our southern border).
While we’re all impacted by COVID-19, I would argue that its impact on noncitizens, and particularly those who hold essential worker jobs, is far worse than the average person. Thus far Congress has at least endeavored to provide benefits or some form of relief to U.S. citizens and noncitizens who are lawfully in the United States. But many immigrant are affected differently (e.g., many immigrants are not eligible to receive direct payments and support, and many others are not able take advantage of the increased availability of health care services), and many noncitizens who are here in the United States, whether lawfully or otherwise, right or wrong, are the very essential workers that you and I rely on every day of our lives (e.g., health care workers, grocery store workers, dairy workers, and the list goes on and on).
These are stressful times. Both foreign and U.S. workers in all of our communities are suffering the impacts of COVID-19, whether economic or otherwise, and if large parts of the population are intentionally being excluded from the federal government’s economic support, this will have a widespread impact on everyone. We all deserve better.
This time that we all find ourselves in is surreal to say the very least. Nothing is as it should be, and we truly have no idea when the old normal will be new again. Yet certain aspects of our lives must continue to move forward, including in my case, the work that needs to be done for my clients. As complex as the world of immigration is, it is made unbelievably more so when COVID-19 (Coronavirus) changes the landscape almost moment to moment.
The Departments of Homeland Security and State have taken some steps towards flattening the curve (e.g., cancelling in-person appointments, cancelling visa interviews, etc.). Far more aggressive action is needed, however, to ensure the safety of all our federal employees, our immigrant clients, and their representatives.
Although the Executive Office of Immigration Review (“EOIR”) has suspended all immigration hearings for non-detained aliens, they inexplicably continue to go on for detained aliens, at great risk to the very same people I’ve noted who need to be protected. The EOIR should close all the immigration courts, yet continue to ensure reasonable and safe (e.g., telephonic or video) access to counsel for detainees. Equally as important, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) needs to ensure and protect immigrants from falling out of status during this awful COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) should extend all filing deadlines, excuse late filings and grant automatic extensions of stays for individuals whose authorized period of stay is set to expire. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) should relax its rules so individuals who are laid off or furloughed can maintain their lawful status.
I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received over the last week or two from corporate clients asking questions about what to do about particular employees, some of whom are here, for example, on H-1B nonimmigrant (or other similar) visas and who would or will be adversely impacted if they were laid off or furloughed. Our immigration law, unfortunately and not surprisingly, is not very forgiving in these situations.
For example, employers who hire individuals who work for them on H-1B nonimmigrant visas, know that USDOL’s regulations require that they continue to abide by the labor conditions to which they agreed when they filed the H-1B petition with USCIS. These are the terms set forth in what is called the Labor Condition Application (“LCA”) filed with the H-1B petition. These concern payment of the required wage, full-time vs. part-time employment of the employee, and notice to employees in the area of intended employment.
As we all know, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, many local and state governmental authorities are instituting shelter-in-place, work-from-home, or stay-at-home orders to facilitate social distancing. In addition, the economic fortunes of many companies have fallen dramatically since the COVID-19 outbreak, including many small businesses that have all but shut down. This has prompted many employers to reevaluate their business operations. Consequently many employers are asking what happens to their foreign workers if they furlough, layoff, reduce hours, or they otherwise become unproductive during this crisis.
USDOL regulations require H-1B employers to pay the wage set forth in the LCA. Given that, how are employers able to place an H-1B worker in non-productive status while at the same time maintain compliance with the applicable DOL regulations requiring provision of the required wage irrespective of non-productive work status? The short answer is, they can’t.
“Non-productive status” is defined as any time during the validity of the LCA and H-1B petition where an employee is unable to work. When an employee is in a non-productive status due to a decision of the employer (e.g., due to a lack of work), under the regulations, the employer is still required to pay the required wage.
Likewise, an employer cannot furlough, layoff, bench, or otherwise render an H-1B worker non-productive and, as a result, stop offering the required wage, if the employee is not able to work from home during a COVID-19 pandemic initiated “stay at home” order from federal, state, or municipal government authorities. If an employer did so, it would risk liability such as fines, back wage obligations, and, in serious cases, debarment from the USDOL’s temporary and permanent immigration programs.
As I explained to a client the other day, an employer could seek to convert a full-time H-1B worker to part-time, but this would require not only the filing of a new LCA to reflect this change, but also the employer would then be required to file an amended H-1B petition with USCIS (expending additional fees along the way). Although the H-1B worker would be permitted to commence part-time employment upon USCIS’s receipt of the amended H-1B petition, before this happens the employer would need to make the decision to undergo this effort, which is no inexpensive effort in normal time, let alone these times.
USCIS should suspend (or even waive) the requirement that employers must file an amended or new H-1B petition when a new LCA is required due to a change in an H-1B worker’s employment as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Not only is there legal authority for USCIS to do this, it’s also clearly the right thing to do. These are unprecedented times. Our government needs to show some leadership (and heart) so as not to make a terrible situation worse on all employers affected by COVID-19 and their foreign-born employees.
Tags: Coronavirus, COVID-19, Immigration.
Last night I received an email from Microsoft’s Office365 Message Center providing me with preparedness information for COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and guidance regarding best practices for Microsoft Teams. Well, I don’t use Microsoft Teams (and candidly I don’t even know what it is let alone know what it does), but I did take that admonition as an opportunity to think about the Coronavirus and the immigration consequences of it.
According to the Center for Disease Control, COVID-19 is a “respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was first detected in China and which has now been detected [as of this writing] in 70 locations internationally, including in the United States.” On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)”. One day later, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency (PHE) for the United States.
When President Trump came into office, one of the first things his administration did, which of course was alarming at the time (and still is) was create the Travel Ban. The Travel Ban is now in its third iteration (if you’re counting). Most recently, however, the White House announced two (2) presidential proclamations, each addressing the entry to the United States of certain immigrants and nonimmigrants who pose a risk of transmitting Coronavirus.
On January 31, 2020, the President issued Proclamation 9984, which suspends and limits entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of all individuals who were physically present within the People’s Republic of China, not including Hong Kong and Macau, during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry. On March 4, 2020, the President issued a second proclamation (Proclamation 9992) that, with few exceptions, suspends and limits entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, persons who were physically present in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry. My sense is there will be more.
The scope of both proclamations are actually broader than their titles would suggest. For example, under the President’s January 31, 2020 proclamation, U.S. citizens who traveled from the Hubei province in China within 14 days of arriving to the United States will also be subject to up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine. In addition, U.S. citizens returning to the United States who had visited other parts of China, outside of Hong Kong, Macau, and the Hubei province, will be subject to monitoring at certain ports of entry, and potentially self-quarantined at home.
Importantly, from an immigration perspective, the President’s first proclamation also states that it does not affect an individual’s eligibility to apply for political asylum, or other relief, including withholding of removal, or protection under the United National Convention Against Torture (CAT). The proclamation also does not apply to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents (i.e., Green Card holders).
Earlier this week, there was an article in the Albany Times Union indicating concern by the Lake George, New York hospitality sector that hotels, restaurants and other businesses were not going to be able to fill a thousand or more necessary jobs that are typically filled by foreign students who participate in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Summer Work Travel Program. Related to this, the Department of State’s Office of Academic Exchanges (which is the office that administers the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program) provided information for exchange visitors currently in the United States whose travel may be affected by COVID-19. Specifically, the Department of State indicated that U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) could exercise its discretion to extend or change the status of foreign nationals in the United States who are in J-1 exchange visitor status, and in some cases provide student work authorization, for those individuals who cannot depart the United States because of what’s going on in their home country.
And finally, on March 3, 2020, USCIS confirmed that, out of an abundance of caution, it temporarily closed its Seattle Field Office after one of its employees exhibiting flu-like symptoms confirmed having been potentially exposed to COVID-19.
So, clearly events are very fluid, both from a medical perspective (which this article is not about) and otherwise. COVID-19 is having far-reaching impacts, including in my little piece of the world. This article is not about whether the President or his Administration’s response has been appropriate, timely or otherwise. It is meant simply to be factual and to provide timely guidance for those who may be impacted.
 Indeed, in addition to U.S. Citizens and lawful permanent residents, the Proclamation does not apply to: (a) spouses of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident; (b) parents or legal guardians of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, provided that the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident is unmarried and under the age of 21; (c) siblings of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, provided that both are unmarried and under the age of 21; (d) children, foster children, or wards of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, or prospective adoptees seeking to enter the United States pursuant to the IR-4 or IH-4 visa classifications; (e) foreign nationals traveling to the United States at the invitation of the United States Government for a purpose related to containment or mitigation of the virus; (f) nonimmigrants under section 101(a)(15)(C) or (D) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1101(a)(15)(C) or (D)), as a crewmember or any alien otherwise traveling to the United States as air or sea crew; (g) nonimmigrants on an visas related to foreign government officials or the immediate family member of an official), (h) foreign nationals whose entry would not pose a significant risk of introducing, transmitting, or spreading the virus, as determined by the CDC Director, or his designee; (i) foreign nationals whose entry would further important United States law enforcement objectives, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their respective designees based on a recommendation of the Attorney General or his designee; or (j) foreign nationals whose entry would be in the national interest, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their designees.