US visa and immigration agency reopens, concerns remain

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Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services 30 May 2020

Department of Homeland Security / Public

Comments by Sanwar Ali:

Perhaps inevitably there are worse delays than normal in dealing with US visa petitions and applications due to the coronavirus pandemic.  USCIS has a cash crisis and so has less resources to try and deal with a backlog of visa applications. 

In addition in most cases you are unable to obtain a US visa via an US Embassy or Consulate abroad.  So the huge inconvenience for many migrant applicants in the US and abroad continues.  Many US visa applicants are unable to gain entry to the US at the current time.  Visa holders in the US who perhaps wish to leave are also in difficulties.

The good news is that visa petitions can still be made at USCIS service centers which includes L1, H1B, O1, H2B visas and other types of application.  So unless Trump bring in a partial US work visa ban which is very possible you can continue to submit US visa petitions in the US.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reopened some of its field offices on June 4, 2020. However, many US immigrants worry about the agency’s ability to cope with a backlog of US visa and citizenship applications. After closing in mid-March, USCIS in-person services resumed across most cities in the US.

A number of US citizenship ceremonies, in small groups and observing social distancing rules, have already been conducted since offices reopened. Meanwhile, several in-person interviews in relation to US visa and immigration matters have also taken place.

In Massachusetts, more than 100 people were officially declared US citizens outside the Lawrence office on June 4.

Backlogs of visa applications a concern  

However, immigrant advocacy groups claim that USCIS has no concrete plan to tackle a backlog of people already approved to become US citizens, but have had their oath ceremonies cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to official records, more than 100,000 people have been affected by cancellations, many of whom now face missing out on becoming US citizens ahead of the presidential elections in November.

The registration deadline for primary elections in the US is fast approaching for several states during the summer. Immigrants looking to vote must be US citizens when they register or they risk criminal charges and possible deportation.

Xiao Wang, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based tech company Boundless said that he’s skeptical about USCIS’ plans to tackle backlogs following the agency’s reopening. Wang predicts that the backlog will only increase ahead of the upcoming election.

He said: “Just holding naturalization ceremonies that are smaller and socially distanced is missing the broader opportunity to dramatically improve the process.”

USCIS financial crisis

Workpermit.com recently reported that USCIS is on the brink of collapse because of a slump in revenue brought on by the coronavirus. The agency has sought a $1.2 billion funding injection from Congress to stay afloat and said that it could run out of money by July.

Senior USCIS officials have said that without Congressional intervention they will have to furlough staff.

Commenting on concerns over the agency’s ability to cope with backlogs, USCIS spokesman Joe Sowers, said: “A key aim of this agency has been and continues to be the timely naturalization of qualified and vetted candidates for American citizenship, any suggestion to the contrary ignores an 11-year high in naturalizations last year and a 12% reduction in pending naturalizations.”

In Massachusetts, immigrant rights groups have sought intervention from the federal court to speed up naturalization ceremonies.

According to official figures, more than 4,000 in the state have been denied voting rights because of delayed citizenship ceremonies, a figure that could rise to as many as 12,000 if oath ceremonies are not regularly carried out before the fall.

The court in Boston said that USCIS should consider hosting virtual ceremonies or at least scrap the oath ceremony during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public oath required for citizenship ceremonies

However, USCIS said that federal law requires the citizenship oath to be conducted ‘publicly’ and in person, while key aspects of the ceremony are unsuitable virtually, such as collecting permanent resident cards and issuing citizenship certificates.

In Massachusetts, USCIS has been urged to swear in 80 to 200 new citizens each day. Meanwhile, in mid-July, when Massachusetts launches the next phase of its economic recovery, the Boston federal court plans to hold four ceremonies per day, consisting of groups up to 25 people, said chief justice of the Boston federal court, Judge Dennis Saylor.

Judge Saylor said: “Every single judge of this court views this as a priority. If I have to stand outside in a parking lot with a bullhorn to get it done, I’d do it. But it’s more complicated than that.”

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