USCIS Plans To Reopen Offices In June After 2-Month Pause

By Suzanne Monyak
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Law360 (May 27, 2020, 7:44 PM EDT) -- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin reopening its offices and resume citizenship ceremonies in early June, more than two months after the agency canceled in-person services as a protective measure during the coronavirus pandemic.

USCIS said Wednesday that it will reopen some of its U.S. offices on June 4, while scheduling fewer visa appointments and interviews "to ensure social distancing, allow time for cleaning and reduce waiting room occupancy," and holding some interviews over video in separate rooms at an agency office.

The agency will also begin holding naturalization oath ceremonies, the final step required for U.S. permanent residents to become American citizens, although the ceremonies will be shorter and only the candidates will be permitted to attend to limit exposure, with exceptions for children and people with disabilities who require assistance. 

Additionally, people entering USCIS facilities must wear face masks covering their mouths and noses and cannot arrive for interviews more than 15 minutes early or with too many people. Individuals should not come to their appointments if they are feeling sick, and there will be no penalty for rescheduling for that reason, the agency said. USCIS also encouraged applicants to bring their own pens.

A USCIS spokesperson said the reopening is in line with the Trump administration's three-pronged "Guidelines for Opening Up America Again."

USCIS canceled in-person services, including asylum interviews, biometrics appointments and oath ceremonies, in March as the U.S. locked down to contain the outbreak of COVID-19, which has since claimed more than 100,000 lives in the U.S.

USCIS has also paused its faster premium processing services, which allows businesses to pay a fee for faster visa processing, while attorneys worry about potentially slower service as more foreign workers prepare to apply to extend their visas from within the U.S. due to the U.S. consulate closures and travel restrictions. 

The agency has offered some flexibility for immigration lawyers over the past few months of lockdown, including by allowing scanned signatures on forms and waiving fingerprinting requirements in some cases. The agency also said it was conducting "small in-person naturalization ceremonies" in "certain limited circumstances" before reopening.

However, advocates and immigration lawyers have called on USCIS to take those measures further, including by extending deadlines for foreigners on soon-expiring visas and conducting oath ceremonies remotely to allow more permanent residents to become citizens. House Democrats in their latest coronavirus relief bill also requested that citizenship ceremonies be held remotely.

According to an analysis conducted by Boundless Immigration, a tech company that helps immigrants become permanent residents and U.S. citizens, with each day USCIS' offices are closed, more than 2,000 immigrants will run out of time to become American citizens before the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

A USCIS spokesperson told Law360 on Wednesday that "tens of thousands of individuals" had their ceremonies delayed as a result of the coronavirus-related closures, but would not provide details on whether rescheduled naturalization ceremonies would include fewer candidates, in addition to excluding friends and family members.

"Rescheduling naturalization ceremonies is a top priority of USCIS as we enter our phased reopening," the spokesperson said.

Mahsa Khanbabai, chair of the American Immigration Lawyer Association's New England chapter, told Law360 she had heard from several attorneys in her region whose clients have started receiving notices for oath ceremonies rescheduled within the first two weeks of June.

Some attorneys have told her they received rescheduling notices for clients in Utah and Kansas City, Missouri, as well, she said.

Khanbabai said that although she recognized it was necessary for USCIS to cancel in-person services, it had been difficult for green card holders to have their cases delayed, particularly in the face of mounting immigration restrictions by the Trump administration.

"It's an incredibly relieving and a joyful time for them," Khanbabai said of the reopenings. "Many of these individuals have been waiting years, sometimes decades, to become a citizen, and especially look forward to being able to vote in the election."

USCIS' planned reopening comes as the agency, which is primarily funded by application fees, faces a budget shortfall in response to a drop in visa requests during the pandemic. Earlier this month, the agency requested $1.2 billion in emergency funding, which would be repaid by employers and immigrants in the form of higher immigration application fees.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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