Feds Relax In-Person Rules For I-9, Visa Forms Due To Virus

Law360 (March 20, 2020, 7:17 PM EDT) -- The federal government will relax certain in-person document review and signature requirements for businesses to verify workers' employment eligibility and to request visas, as companies go remote to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Friday that the agency will accept electronic signatures on all immigration forms filed after March 21, including forms to request temporary work visas, while President Donald Trump's national emergency order is in effect, rather than requiring "wet ink" signatures.

In a similar vein, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Friday that it will permit employers to electronically review I-9 documents, which verify whether an employee is authorized to work in the U.S., if the business has implemented a teleworking policy due to the virus.

ICE requires employers to examine certain documents in-person, but in light of the outbreak, the agency said employers can conduct the in-person review once businesses resume normal operations.

The agency also gave employers an extra 60 days to respond to audits if they were served with a notice of inspection in March, saving employers and their attorneys from having to scramble to collect physical documents at a time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to stay home.

Immigration attorneys generally praised the agencies' changes for offering needed flexibility as U.S. cities issue shelter-in-place orders and law firms close their physical offices.

"I think this will be a huge relief," Becki L. Young, a business immigration attorney with Grossman Young & Hammond LLC, told Law360 on Friday about the signature waiver. "This is what we've been hoping for all week."

Eileen Scofield of Alston & Bird LLP, who specializes in immigration enforcement and I-9 compliance, welcomed ICE's changes, but warned they could present hurdles for employers on the back end when they have to conduct the in-person review later.

She noted that some industries, such as food processing, have high turnover rates, meaning that certain workers hired and reviewed remotely may no longer be employed once the in-person review requirement is eventually reinstated, which will happen either in 60 days or when the national emergency terminates — whichever comes first.

Scofield also noted that ICE will require the employers to conduct the delayed in-person checks within three business days of resuming normal operations, which could be challenging for companies that may have hired hundreds of workers under the relaxed procedures.

"Would everybody like more? Yes. But I think this is a good way to make it work," she said.

The same day it announced the looser measures, USCIS also said that it would stop fast-tracking requests for nonimmigrant visas and green cards. The agency has already paused premium processing, which allows employers to pay to have applications decided faster, for H-1B specialty occupation visa requests.

Young said that the latest premium processing pause could pose problems for people with imminently expiring H-1Bs who had planned to petition for a green card this year and counted on premium processing being available. It could also increase the amount of time someone is living in the U.S. illegally if they recently quit or lost a job, and were hoping to quickly apply for a new temporary work visa with a new job.

Without the faster processing, green card petitions can take up to eight months to be approved, while temporary visa requests can take up to a year.

"If you had a really tight timeline and you were hoping to get [a green card approved] in a month or two, you're not going to have that option," Young said.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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