Trying to do anything normal in the United States, whether it's working, traveling, or seeing friends and family, has become all but impossible during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. That raises a critical question for anyone hoping to obtain a U.S. visa (permanent or temporary), possibly to do the same sorts of things: Is doing so still possible?
The situation changes day by day, but let's go over some of the basics, as of early 2021.
For travelers from many countries, travel to the U.S. is prohibited. Both the southern and northern U.S. borders have been closed to all but essential travel (tourist or recreational).
None of these country-based prohibitions include U.S. lawful permanent residents (green card holders) Nevertheless, that doesn't solve any problems for people just now in the process of obtaining immigrant visas. Such visas lead to permanent residence, but you don't actually become a permanent resident until you set foot, with official permission, in the United States.
In effect, the entry exception for green card holders works only for those returning to the U.S., not coming for their first time as a new immigrant.
It remains possible to submit applications for U.S. immigration benefits to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State (DOS) and related agencies. Most functions have routinely been handled by mail up to now, as they will continue to be going forward.
For example, a U.S. family member or employer can still file an initial petition (Form I-130 or I-140) with USCIS on your behalf.
The various U.S. government agencies are always delayed in their processing, however, and are now even more delayed given the health needs of their staff and the slowdown of all societal functioning. Don't expect decisions to come quickly.
The National Visa Center (NVC), for instance, which is an intermediary between USCIS and overseas consulates, says that it has temporarily reduced its staffing and will thus only respond to inquiries made via its “Ask NVC” form if they concern urgent humanitarian or medical issues or necessary case updates.
The more significant issue is that eventually, your application will likely require one or more in-person meetings before the government makes a final visa or green card decision. That's described next.
No matter what you're applying for within the U.S., such as asylum or adjustment of status to get a green card, it would normally involve one or more in-person appointments or interviews with officials of the U.S. government.
In fact, under the Trump Administration, some categories of applicants (such as employment-based adjustment of status seekers) were required to attend personal interviews though they wouldn't have had to in the past.
At a more prosaic level, many applications require providing fingerprints and photo (biometrics), which is almost impossible to do without showing up in person.
The U.S. government is trying to develop workarounds for some in-person meetings. For instance, USCIS says that people renewing their work permits (on Form I-765) no longer have to show up for a biometrics appointment if USCIS is able to use their biometric data from a past application.
Some USCIS offices have reopened, though with various precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
If you receive any sort of appointment and have any possible COVID-19 symptoms, you are of course asked to reschedule.
If you're overseas and applying for a visa to the U.S. (whether a temporary/nonimmigrant visa or an immigrant visa for permanent residence), check with the consulate that provides such services to your region before you attempt to visit. Many consulates have been either canceling visa appointments or limiting them to applicants in emergency/urgent situations.
There's no across-the-board rule; whether a consulate is open for appointments depends on the local health situation. The type of visa you're applying for might also affect your prospects of getting an interview or visa approval. Some consulates have, for example, have canceled all appointments for nonimmigrant (temporary) visas, but continue to hold them for immigrant/green card applicants.
Again, if you receive a consular appointment and have any possible COVID-19 symptoms, you should reschedule.
If one of the requirements for the visa you're applying for is a medical exam, finding an available doctor from the list of approved ones in your area could also be a challenge.
Now is also probably not the best time to convince a consular officer that you want to visit the U.S. for fun on a B-2 visa, perhaps to take a road trip. Not a wise move at the moment!
Other types of visas might depend on attending college (F-1) or starting a job, but if the school or workplace is currently closed, that will make approval problematic.
With luck, however, you might eventually be able to attend the appointment and receive visa approval, then or soon after.
Some types of visas allow U.S. entry only within a limited time window, such as the 90-day K-1 fiancé visa. If that time passes and you haven't been able to make the trip to the U.S. for reasons related to the pandemic, the consulate might be able to extend the visa. You'll need to provide assurances or proof that you're still just as eligible for it as before, however.
The U.S. immigration response to the coronavirus situation is changing constantly. We will attempt to keep this article updated, as you should continue to follow the news and be alert for changes relevant to your application.