U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has temporarily suspended all in-person activities at its offices. That lockdown, which is related to the current COVID-19 pandemic and scheduled to extend until April 1 (and may continue beyond that), will grind many U.S. immigration processes to a halt.
In addition, USCIS also announced that premium processing of cap-subject H-1B petitions for fiscal year 2021 will be temporarily suspended. However, the agency states that the suspension has more to do with processing times than COVID-19. “This temporary suspension is similar to last year’s suspension and will help us to reduce overall H-1B processing times,” the agency explained on its website.
“USCIS will resume premium processing for FY 2021 cap-subject H-1B petitions requesting a change of status from F-1 nonimmigrant status no later than May 27, 2020, and will notify the public before premium processing resumes for these petitions,” the note continued. “The earliest date that USCIS will resume premium processing for all other FY 2021 cap-subject H-1B petitions is June 29, 2020.”
USCIS has suspended premium processing (which means a “guaranteed” 15-day processing time) before. In those instances, the agency also claimed that the suspension would allow it to process an enormous backlog of petitions. Although the action has helped trigger lawsuits from companies that rely on the H-1B visa for sourcing highly skilled workers, USCIS has insisted repeatedly that it has broad authority to set its own limits.
A suspension renders it more difficult for petitioners to obtain H-1B visas, and those who already hold a visa may find it harder to jump jobs or transfer to a new company office in a different state. COVID-19 may have a substantial impact on things, as well; for example, if a firm shifts to a remote-work policy or adjusts the assigned tasks of a particular H-1B holder, it may lead to additional paperwork, although expert opinions on that front differ.
But others don’t think that virus-driven workplace changes will ultimately have that much of an effect on the bulk of H-1B holders. “For an H-1B employee, an amended petition or LCA [labor condition application] should not be required as long as the employee is working in the same capacity and within typical commuting distance of the work location on the original petition and LCA,” William Stock of Klasko Immigration Law Partners recently told Forbes.
USCIS is denying an increasing number of new H-1B visa applications, in addition to continuing-employment ones. The rise of COVID-19 could disrupt things further, especially if it leads many companies to pull back on hiring. Again, nobody is quite sure how this process will play out, although the tech industry as a whole is hoping that this pandemic crisis is over as soon as possible.
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