COVID 19: Immigrants Are Vital to U.S. Health Care Delivery

As COVID-19 takes its toll on medical professionals who are putting their health at risk to help those infected and hospitalized with the virus,  there is growing awareness of the importance of immigrants to U.S. health care delivery.

About 27,000 immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status work in health care as doctors, paramedics, nurses, EMTs, medical students etc.  Their fates are swinging in the balance as they wait for a decision from the Supreme Court by June regarding the legality of the administration’s rescission of the DACA program.   Should the Supreme Court uphold the rationale for the rescission, these health care workers will lose their authorization to work and become deportable at a moment when their services have never been more critically needed, as this op-ed explains.   Their importance is so significant that the Supreme Court has been asked to take this impact into consideration as it weighs all the factors in the case.

Additionally, as we’ve noted previously, a significant number of doctors in the U.S. are foreign born.   Our immigration laws raise barriers to deploying them to help address the COVID-19 crisis when and where their expertise is greatly needed.   There is increasing awareness of this problem, as explained in this Vox article and this NPR report.

Many other countries including Canada have streamlined the process for foreign doctors trained in their countries or trained abroad to gain residency and to practice medicine.   The U.S. and Maine already had a growing physician shortage prior to the emergence of COVID-19.   However, the pandemic is laying bare how U.S. immigration laws create obstacles for foreign doctors and work against our nation’s public health interests.

Congress should address these deficiencies in any future COVID-19 relief bill so that DACA health professionals and foreign doctors can do what they do best – work to keep all U.S. residents healthy.

COVID-19: USCIS Must Do More to Avoid Chaos for Immigrants and their Employers

As is well stated in this op-ed by a former Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and summarized in this article in The Hill, USCIS must act to prevent nonimmigrants and other work authorized noncitizens, and the organizations that employ them, from being thrown into chaos by the agency’s office closures and suspensions of service delivery due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While in late March, USCIS belatedly took small steps to  extend certain response and appeal deadlines related to notices and decisions about individual applications issued between March 1 and May 1, 2020, and to reuse previously submitted biometrics (digital fingerprints) needed to process work permit renewal applications, these measures do not go nearly far enough.

USCIS’s office closures and processing delays put those with nonimmigrant visas and work permits at risk of going out of status.  A person who goes out of status for even one day can become completely ineligible to continue in her/his prior legal status, or must leave the U.S. and apply for a new visa at a U.S. consulate abroad – which is currently not possible due to COVID-19 suspensions of visa operations at all U.S. consulates.

USCIS has a variety of existing tools in its arsenal, as outlined in the op-ed, that could compensate for its barriers to and delays in application processing related to its COVID-19 responses, and could inject humanity and provide certainty to legally present noncitizens whose status is at risk of expiring, and to their employers alike.

It’s time for USCIS to go beyond half-measures and take aggressive actions to protect the statuses of these noncitizens automatically for at least a year.


COVID-19 Related Immigration Agency Actions

The nation’s immigration apparatus, including the Department of State (DOS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Labor (DOL), and the immigration court system (EOIR) has taken dozens of measures in response to the growing reach and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Changes happen virtually daily. Please follow the links below to learn more about just some of the current actions most relevant to Maine that impact not only immigrants, nonimmigrants, and U.S. citizens, but also public health, and business and economic activity.

DOS changes:

  • Routine visa services are suspended at all U.S. embassies and consulates abroad as of March 20, 2020.   All routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa interviews are cancelled until further notice.
  • H-2 visas are deemed “essential to the economy and food security” and as a result, as of March 26, 2020,  normally required interviews will be waived for most beneficiaries of H-2A or H-2B visa petitions.
  • J-1 International Exchange visa programs that involve travel to or from countries subject to heightened CDC or DOS alert levels are temporarily suspended as of March 17, 2020.
  • However, certain J-1 physicians and medical professionals received additional guidance on March 26, 2020.
  • DOS advises U.S. citizens and residents to avoid all international travel as of March 19, 2020.  Country specific warnings are here.

USCIS changes:

 ICE changes:

CBP changes: 

EOIR changes:

COVID-19: CARES Act Denies Relief to Millions of Immigrants

The Corona Virus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, H.R. 748, was enacted on March 27, 2020. Despite immigrants’ importance to the U.S. workforce and economy, millions will get no direct financial assistance from the $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill – neither the cash “Recovery Rebates” of up to $1200 per individual or $2400 per couple under certain income limits, nor the expanded federal COVID-19 unemployment insurance (UI) benefits to workers whose jobs and incomes have disappeared as a result of the pandemic.

The Recovery Rebates will only be issued to individuals with Social Security numbers. Many U.S. citizens and permanent residents are married to immigrants who do not yet have Social Security numbers, and the law specifically states that no rebate will be issued unless both spouses have Social Security numbers. Additionally, many work-authorized nonimmigrants, asylum seekers, and others with Social Security numbers who are not yet permanent residents will be excluded from the Rebates.

Undocumented workers, including those critical to many sectors of the U.S. economy such as essential workers in agriculture and health and eldercare, who often pay taxes with taxpayer identification numbers, also are excluded from the both the Recovery Rebates and the expanded UI benefits.

Immigrants, regardless of legal status, are impacted by COVID-19’s effects. Failure to include many of them in the CARES Act not only jeopardizes their and their families’ health and safety, but also harms the communities in which they live, as this article outlines.

In any future relief legislation, Congress should include all immigrants, regardless of status. COVID-19’s effects have no regard for national origin or immigration status.   The nation’s public health and economic responses shouldn’t either.

Immigration Laws Hamper Deployment of U.S. Trained Foreign Doctors in COVID-19 Response

Many U.S. physicians are individuals from other countries who pursued their medical degrees and residencies here.   Many continue to practice in the U.S. after completing their education and training by obtaining H-1B visas for skilled professionals.

However, these visas are extremely restrictive, allowing doctors to work only where specified in the visa petitions filed by their employers on the doctors’ behalves. This prevents these doctors from being deployed to hospitals or other settings where they could be needed as part of the public health response to COVID-19, if those hospitals were not specified in their visa petitions.

This article in Bloomberg Law explains the problem, and the need for action to introduce flexibility into the H-1B visa program so that these critically needed doctors can assist where needed without restriction.

COVID-19: ICE Adjusts I-9 Requirements Temporarily for Remote Workplaces

For employers that have transitioned their employees to working remotely due to COVID-19,   Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has announced a temporary relaxation of the requirement for in-person inspection of work authorization documents when completing the I-9 form during onboarding of new employees who will be working remotely.   Employers will still need to see the employees’ documents transmitted electronically, and attach copies to the I-9 form.

Additionally, once the workplace resumes normal operations, the employee must present the original work authorization documents to the employer.

See the details, including specifics about which employers can take advantage of this temporary change, here, and guidance from the Society for Human Resource Management here.

L.D. 647 Advances Towards Funding, until COVID-19

L.D. 647, An Act To Attract, Educate and Retain New State Residents To Strengthen the Workforce,  MeBIC’s highest legislative priority during this state legislative session, made good progress in early March.

MeBIC and partners proposed that at least $475,000 be earmarked for sections 2,3, and 5 of the bill in the supplemental budget’s line for workforce development-related adult education funding.   MeBIC was gratified when the  Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and the Innovation, Development and Economic Advancement Committee both supported that recommendation in their budget reports to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Only days later, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the State House, appropriately prompting revised revenue forecasts and a substantially revised supplemental budget.   Funds for workforce development-related adult education programming were cut in half, with no specific recommendations for how they would be spent, in the supplemental budget enacted by the Legislature prior to its early adjournment.

MeBIC will continue to work for funding for L.D. 647 if the Legislature returns for a special session after the COVID-19 crisis wanes.  In the meantime, MeBIC is advocating with the Department of Education to stress the continued importance of directing adult education funding to increasing capacity to educate the English language learners who are so critical for Maine’s vibrant communities and workforce.

Somali TPS Reregistration Begins March 11, 2020; Work Permits Extended Automatically to Sept. 13, 2020

The Department of Homeland Security announced that qualified Somalis can reregister for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from March 11 through May 11, 2020.  As announced previously, TPS for citizens of Somalia is being extended until September 17, 2021.

Work permits for most Somalis who currently have TPS or have prior reregistration applications pending are automatically extended through September 13, 2020 as long as reregistration is completed by May 11th.  Employers and TPS re-registrants can find more information about automatic employment authorization extensions on the USCIS Somali TPS page.   Automatic extensions are necessary because of USCIS delays in processing TPS work permit applications.  Once granted, Somali TPS work permits will be valid through September 17, 2021.

TPS is offered when the U.S. government determines that civil conflict or natural disaster has created conditions making it inadvisable for citizens of the designated countries who are already in the U.S. at the moment of the TPS designation to return to their home countries. Individuals with TPS are allowed to stay and work in the U.S. legally during the TPS period.  Somalia was first designated for TPS  in 1991, and was most recently re-designated in 2012.

35,000 More H-2B Visas To Be Issued for FY2020; New Constraints Imposed


  • As of March 9, 2020, DHS had not provided notice of releasing the 35,000 additional visas, but the Office of Foreign Labor Certification issued a FAQs on March 9, 2020 regarding issues raised by the Department of Homeland Security’s May 5, 2020 announcement.  Scroll down on this page to find the March 9, 2020 FAQs.
  • On March 20, 2020, Department of State (DOS) announced it would suspend all routine visa processing at U.S. Consulates abroad.
  • On March 26, 2020,  recognizing the importance of the H-2 visa programs to U.S. employers, DOS announced that it would waive visa interviews for most beneficiaries of approved H-2A and H-2B visa petitions so that visa issuance could continue despite most U.S. consulates being closed to the public.
  • The Department of Labor and USDA announced an information sharing initiative to identify H-2A and H-2B workers whose current positions are ending who might be able to transfer to other employers’ labor certifications to fill seasonal positions starting in the second half of FY 2020.

On March 5, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will release 35,000 more H-2B visas beyond the 33,000 cap for the second half of FY 2020, for positions for seasonal non-agricultural workers with start dates between April 1, 2020 and September 30, 2020.

The visas were authorized by Congress in the omnibus budget bill enacted in December 2019.  However, Congress authorized over 69,000 additional visas.  It is disappointing that DHS is releasing barely half of that number, falling far short of the need, as has happened for the last several years.

In addition, the additional H-2B visas are accompanied by new conditions and constraints:

    • The visas will be released in two batches:  20,000 for positions beginning April 1st, and 15,000 for positions beginning  May 15th;
    • 10,000 visas will be reserved for seasonal workers coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, ostensibly to stem the flow of persons arriving at the southern border without visas;
    • The visas will be generally limited to returning H-2B workers;
    • The start date on the H-2B petition and the employer’s start date of need will be required to coincide exactly.

Also, on March 6, 2020, DHS published a notice formalizing that effective immediately, “a printed copy of the electronic final determination form granting temporary labor certification under the H–2B program through the U.S. Department of Labor’s new Foreign Labor Application Gateway system must be submitted with an H–2B petition as evidence of an original approved temporary labor certification.”

Once again, the limited number of additional H-2B visas, coupled with the additional conditions, will result in the H-2B program failing to meet the seasonal hiring needs of Maine’s employers.    Congress needs to get to work and accomplish immigration reform.