Thousands of people with legal status in the United States could inadvertently violate immigration law over the next few months, as the government agency that processes applications remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Attorneys, think tanks, activists and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — the agency that issues work permits and naturalizations to foreign nationals — have put forward some proposals to plug holes in existing immigration law, but potentially millions remain at risk.
“Times of crisis point out the failures in the system you’ve got. And one of the failures in our immigration system is it’s not responsive to crises. Period,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
A main concern for immigration attorneys are foreign nationals whose work permits are about to expire, whether they plan to request an extension or leave the country.
USCIS, a largely paper-based organization, has suspended in-person service until at least April 1 to protect its staff, contractors and prospective applicants from contagion.
“The immediate and most pressing concern for our members and employees is ensuring individuals whose status is expiring have means and measures to remain lawfully,” said Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
In a letter Monday to Ken Cuccinelli, the USCIS senior official performing the duties of the director, AILA demanded the agency freeze all deadlines as of Friday, threatening litigation if the agency does not comply.
Cuccinelli holds the top job at USCIS and the number two post at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), both as a senior official performing duties, as he has not been put forward by President Trump for Senate confirmation.
“You’re putting people into a catch-22. You’re being forced to jeopardize your health and the health of those around you to file things in a timely way, or you’re violating immigration law,” Dalal-Dheini said.
DHS has ample authority to suspend deadlines and prolong work authorizations, according to Ur Jaddou, former chief counsel for USCIS.