Update on U.S Department of State and Customs and Border Protection Responses to COVID-19

Update on U.S Department of State and Customs and Border Protection Responses to COVID-19

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies have each made several changes and accommodations in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which we detail below. However, many uncertainties remain for both immigrant and nonimmigrant visa holders. Because the current situation is evolving rapidly, we urge you to contact one of our attorneys at Gee & Zhang to discuss your specific immigration situation. While we are safely distancing ourselves and working in staggered shifts, we assure you that Gee & Zhang is here to help you navigate these uncertain times. 

DOS Response

  • On March 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of State temporarily and indefinitely suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates, including all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments. If you have already paid the Machine-Readable Visa (MRV) fee for your consular visa appointment, note that the fee may be applied to a visa appointment in the country where it was purchased within one year of the date of purchase.Note, however, that if you paid your MRV fee eleven months ago, for example, but you have not yet had your visa appointment, that fee will expire next month regardless of whether the U.S. Embassies and Consulates remain closed for appointments. No special exceptions have been issued for such instances, as of the date of this announcement.
  • Emergency visa services (e.g., for medical personnel) may be available at some Embassies on a case-by-case basis. Contact our office if you believe that you may qualify for such a visa.

CBP Response

  • Implemented on March 21, 2020, the U.S. has made agreements with both Canada and Mexico to limit all non-essential travel across borders for at least 30 days.However, the CBP restriction of cross-border travelers is vague regarding the distinction between non-essential and essential travel, stating only, “We are maintaining cross-border activities with Canada and Mexico that support health security, trade, commerce, supply security, and other essential activities while taking critical steps to protect our citizens and to curb spread of the virus.”[1]

Of particular interest to travelers seeking entry in TN or B-1 status for business purposes is exactly what “trade” and “commerce” CBP considers essential. It seems that much discretion is left to the CBP officer in making this determination. Even so, Gee & Zhang has prepared TN visa applications for clients who have successfully entered the U.S. from Canada after the travel restrictions have been put in place. If you have attempted to enter the U.S. from Mexico or Canada for business purposes since the new restrictions have been put in place, please share your story with Gee & Zhang to potentially assist other business travelers in their efforts to advance essential trade and commerce in the U.S.

  • CBP recently began announcing temporary changes to the operating hours of many border crossing locations along both Canadian and Mexican borders. Gee & Zhang advises potential cross-border travelers to first check the CBP Border Wait Times web page at bwt.cbp.gov for specific port hours. CBP also offers a CBP Border Wait Times app for both iOS and Android.
  • CBP will no longer detain illegal immigrants in their holding facilities and will immediately return these aliens to the country from which they entered: Canada or Mexico. Where such a return is not possible, CBP will return these aliens to their country of origin.
  • Effective March 19, 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection suspended, until at least May 1, operations at Trusted Traveler Program enrollment centers including Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, and FAST enrollment locations. CBP’s Enrollment on Arrival program will remain operational.

Gee & Zhang continues to closely monitor USCIS’s rapidly evolving response to the COVID-19 crisis, and we are here to clarify their guidance, answer your questions, and support your immigration needs.

[1] https://help.cbp.gov/s/article/Article-1596?language=en_US