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How to Obtain Work Visas During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Sekou Clarke Law Group

Impacts of the Crisis Have Changed What Work Visas Are Available

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause economic devastation throughout the world, finding sustainable work has become even more essential. Unfortunately, economic and political impacts of the crisis have led to the suspension of several popular work visa types. The Trump administration blamed COVID-19 when announcing the changes, scheduled to last a minimum through the end of 2020, explaining they feel available jobs in a contracting American economy should be made available for existing citizens wherever possible.

The following work visa categories are consequently suspended through the end of 2020:

  • H-1B visas – targeting college-educated or “skilled” workers, often used by the tech industry
  • H-2B visas – targeting certain types of seasonal workers, including those in landscaping industries
  • L visas – targeting executives and other workers transferring within a company
  • J visas – targeting those participating in a cultural exchange, including trainees, interns, teachers, and au pairs

You will be able to obtain or renew work visas in the above categories for the rest of the year. As COVID-19 appears to be poised to continue to spread in the United States, it is not clear if these suspensions will be extended past 2020. The status of these work visas is likely to be heavily influenced by the results of the forthcoming presidential election.

The suspension order leaves 3 major work visa categories unaffected. At the time of this writing, they are still unrestricted.

H-2A visas target seasonal workers specific to agricultural industries. O visas, which contain numerous subcategories, target those with “extraordinary” abilities or achievements. P visas, which also contain several subcategories, target those established in the entertainment or professional athletic industries seeking to do business in the United States.

If you qualify for either a H-2A, O, or P visa, you may find that the process for obtaining a visa has become more challenging, and it might take longer. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is experiencing an unprecedented budgetary shortfall, resulting in mass furloughs of staff that take effect in late August 2020 unless sufficient relief is supplied by Congress. This results in fewer available offices and agency employees to process visa applications and subsequently longer wait times. USCIS office operations have also been dramatically impacted by COVID-19 transmission prevention efforts.

How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Work Visa Process

After a multi-month, agency-wide closure coinciding with nationwide lockdown measures hoping to contain COVID-19, USCIS began reopening some facilities for non-emergency business as of June 4, 2020. These include asylum and field offices and are equipped with a number of precautionary measures and rules, including those enforcing physical social distancing, restrictions on when you may enter the facility, and on-site health evaluations.

However, USCIS application support centers have still not reopened, and the agency has not indicated a timeframe on when they might resume business. This means all application support must be conducted remotely, either online, via mail, or over the phone. The impending reduction of USCIS staff also means application processing wait times will dramatically increase across all areas, including work visas. Additionally, many United States embassies and consulates have also frozen or limited their visa services, with only some beginning to reintroduce limited service as of July 14, 2020.

In short, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, you will have fewer ways with which to communicate with USCIS. The agency will also likely take longer to respond to each element of your work visa application, possibly creating delays and making working in the United States more difficult. Depending on your country of origin, you may also face strict travel restrictions preventing you from entering the United States under any circumstance. However, several temporary rule changes made in anticipation of these complications can help alleviate hardship in obtaining some of the still-available work visas.

For example, temporary rules surrounding the H-2A visa have been implemented for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency to make obtaining and maintaining the work visa easier. Since H-2A visas are primarily used in agricultural industries and farming work, the relaxation is intended to help protect the country’s food supplies.

Employers with a valid temporary labor certification, also called a TLC, can now employ certain foreign workers with H-2A status immediately, so long as the employer files an H-2A petition with USCIS. The maximum duration of those with H-2A status has also been extended past the previous maximum of 3 years for the duration of the emergency. Both policies aim to minimize any labor shortfalls.

USCIS has also signaled it will be extending leniency to those foreign workers whose work visas expire as a result of extended delays in processing times for extensions or change of status applications. In other words, so long as you file your extension or change of status application before your visa is set to expire, you are not likely to be subject to immediate removal proceedings while your application is pending.

Obtain a Work Visa with the Help of an Experienced Immigration Attorney

COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s political priority of reducing immigration has inarguably made obtaining a work visa more difficult. With suspensions of many types in place through the end of 2020, most foreign workers can only apply for a handful of visa types. If you are renowned in the field of athletics or the entertainment industry, you may qualify for a P visa. If you are considered an expert or have won numerous prominent awards in your occupational field, you may qualify for an O visa. If neither of those applies, you may still be eligible for seasonal agricultural work under an H-2A visa.

Obtaining any of these still-available work visas would be challenging without a pandemic and USCIS labor reductions, but doing so is by no means impossible. Our immigration attorneys at the Sekou Clarke Law Group can help guide you through the application process, including determining your eligibility and helping you plan for any anticipated roadblocks. We can represent you in communications with USCIS and tirelessly work to obtain your work visa. Our goal is to help you live and work in the United States as efficiently and painlessly as possible, in any scenario – including COVID-19.

If you are planning to or are already in the process of seeking a work visa, schedule a consultation with our team by calling (407) 269-8774 or contacting us online.

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