Immigration attorneys are demanding that the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspend visa deadlines for foreign nationals in the U.S. in response to the growing Covid-19 pandemic.
The agencies’ conduct has “effectively ended the ability of immigration attorneys to competently represent clients without violating state and local orders and jeopardizing the safety and health of themselves, their staff and their clients,” the American Immigration Lawyers Association said in a lawsuit filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Immigration attorney organizations have been increasingly vocal that requirements surrounding visa petitions, employment eligibility verification, and other actions are putting people at greater risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.
AILA is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under the Administrative Procedure Act so that “all foreign nationals remain in lawful status,” the complaint said, including conditional lawful permanent residents, foreign students, temporary guestworkers, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and those with Temporary Protected Status.
“The rest of the world has hit pause to their respective immigration systems,” said Jesse Bless, AILA’s director of federal litigation and lead counsel in the case. “USCIS has decided not to do that.”
Some visa holders and other foreign nationals have been told to shelter in place, but have expiring visas and may not be able to leave the U.S. if their lawful status expires, Bless said.
Immigration attorneys are caught in a Catch-22, he added. “Not only are they told to stay in place and not meet with individuals, they’re at risk of an ethical violation if they don’t meet these deadlines that are practically impossible to meet.”
Front-Line Workers at Risk
In its complaint, AILA noted there are “thousands” of temporary guestworkers on the front lines in the medical and nursing sectors who are working to deliver essential goods and services.
“The United States can ill afford the loss of such workers even for a matter of days where state and federal public officials have forecast severe shortages of health-care resources and the ability of Americans to work and survive using remote communication technology is already under unbearable strain,” the group said.
There is some precedent for the suspension of administrative deadlines, Bless said, citing Congressional action following the terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
House Democrats had included language to suspend visa deadlines in their version of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, but that provision didn’t make it into the final version of the law.
“We’d love for Congress to take action,” Bless said. “We tried diplomacy and thought that USCIS would halt and toll the deadlines, and at this point we know they’re not going to do it.”
CAUSE OF ACTION: Injunctive relief under the Administrative Procedure Act.
RESPONSE: USCIS representative didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.
ATTORNEYS: AILA is representing itself.
The case is Am. Immigration Lawyers Ass’n v. DHS, D.D.C., No. 20-00897, complaint filed 4/3/20.