Like the vast majority of society, the past 9 months have been some of the most challenging and traumatic of our lives. Practicing immigration law in the age of COVID-19 has been a humbling experience.
After a brief lull in summer and early fall, COVID-19 has returned with a vengeance. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where we practice, infections have increased 5-fold. As I write this, the United States has over 10 million positive cases and 160,000 new cases per day. We have lost over 240,000 fellow citizens. On a personal level, our law firm has already lost 3 clients to COVID-19.
Here is our insight to the experience of practicing immigration law in the age of COVID-19
Consultations and Attorney-Client Appointments
At SHG Law, the health and safety of our clients, staff and attorneys is our number one priority. We endeavor to do most of our client meetings via Zoom or Google Hangouts. However, we understand that some clients may not have the ability to conduct online appointments. For those clients, we have set up an outdoor field office in our Collingswood, New Jersey office to mitigate some of the risk factors of COVID-19 transmission. We use our field office and our front and back porch areas to intake, consult and meet with clients to continue practicing immigration law as safely as we can during this time of COVID-19. All clients and staff are required to wear masks, and there is 6-10 feet of distance between our staff and our clients during the appointment. Most studies show that you are approximately 20 times more likely to contract COVID-19 in an indoor environment than an outdoor environment. While any contact contains some risks, the risk is clearly lower outdoors. Since June 2020, we have conducted over 250 face to face appointments since early June, including with individuals we later came to learn were COVID-19 positive at the time of their appointment. As of this publication, we are grateful that nobody on our staff has contracted COVID-19. We will continue to conduct face to face appointments outdoors during the winter months, as we have installed heaters in our field office and on our porches. We will not meet clients indoors for appointments until a safe and effective vaccine has been distributed throughout the United States.
Since the beginning of June 2020, USCIS in Philadelphia, Mt. Laurel, and Newark, New Jersey have reopened and are conducting naturalization and adjustment of status interviews, on a limited basis.
Beneficiaries are asked to arrive no more than 15 minutes before their interview. They are required to wear a mask and bring their own pen. The waiting room is socially distanced, with seating spread out in 6-foot intervals. The daily volume of interviews has severely been limited in order to accommodate social distancing requirements. Furthermore, it appears that on any given day, only about one-third of the USCIS adjudications officers are present. Not surprisingly, as a result, waiting times for interviews have been pushed back to over a year for most types of cases. Each individual USCIS officer has a plexiglass window in front of them in their personal office. Many officers will only take 2 people in their office at once, in order to keep spacing inside their office. Attorneys and Interpreters are also permitted to appear over the phone. In our opinion, there is still not enough space in USCIS adjudications offices, as it is impossible to keep 6 feet of distance between the officers, applicants, and their attorneys and adjudications officers cannot open their windows. USCIS officers are our colleagues and friends too, and we hope that the agency takes additional steps to protect their health and safety over these winter months. For example, USCIS has large conference rooms and naturalization oath ceremony rooms that are not being used most of the time. These rooms could, in theory, be re-purposed to conduct interviews with greater distance.
In June 2020, the Philadelphia Immigration Court has reopened for limited hearings. While the master calendar docket, which conducts initial preliminary hearings continues to be closed, the Immigration Court is holding Individual Merits Hearings (Trials). These trials are conducted in a very different way than in Pre-COVID times. The Government Attorney (the attorney for ICE) most often appears telephonically. The Respondent’s Attorney (the attorney representing the immigrant) has the option to appear telephonically or they can appear in person with their clients. The interpreter also appears in person. In our experience, the Respondent, their attorney, and the interpreter are put in one courtroom, while the Immigration Judge stays in an adjacent courtroom and the Government’s Attorney appears over the telephone. The Judge can see the Respondent in the adjacent courtroom via videolink. Everybody in the courtroom is masked with social distancing measures. Besides an occasional technical glitch, the system seems to be working OK.
The Newark Immigration Court is open for both Master Calendar Hearings and Merits Hearings. All hearings may now be conducted remotely via video or telephone, the result of a federal lawsuit against EOIR in Newark. This lawsuit followed the death of an immigration lawyer, an Immigration Court administrator, a Federal Protective Service supervisor, and the serious illness of a Government Attorney, who are believed to have all contracted COVID in the building that houses the Newark Immigration Court.
The Immigration Court in New York City is only open for detained case and accepting filings. It was closed to Master Calendar Hearings and Merits hearings since March 2020, with no date set for a possible reopening.
Consular Processing Interviews
In March, US Consulates throughout the world were closed to most immigrant and non-immigrant interviews. In April and May of 2020, there were five Presidential COVID Proclamations and two Presidential Labor Market Proclamations that severely limited the types of visa that could be issued at the US Consulates.
In July 2020 the State Department announced a “Phased Resumption of Routine Visa Services.” Since this announcement, however, visa issuance at Consulates worldwide are still severely restricted, even in areas of the world that have effectively contained their COVID outbreaks.
This approaching COVID winter looks like it will be a very challenging time for our practice, and some of the most challenging weeks this country has faced since World War II. We pray for our country, and hope that a vaccine can soon be identified and distributed. Until then, we will continue to remain vigilant against this awful disease. As more is learned about the virus, we will develop additional ways to keep our staff and clients safe from infection and expand our ability to practice immigration law in the time of COVID-19.