United States Citizenship and Immigration Services will reopen certain field offices and asylum offices on Thursday and begin to conduct naturalization ceremonies again.
The agency halted all non-emergency and face-to-face services on March 18 in reaction to COVID-19.
While routine services will start up again, USCIS processing in this pandemic era will be anything but routine. The agency is imposing a variety of restrictions, designed to limit personal interaction and maintain a sanitized environment. Restrictions include opening only certain offices, enforcing health screenings at the door, reducing the number of appointments each day to ensure social distancing, swapping personal interviews with live video interviews, and making citizenship ceremonies shorter and smaller.
At the time of the reopening announcement, USCIS had no information online about which offices were reopening and which were to remain closed. However, the agency advises monitoring its website for daily updates (https://www.uscis.gov/about-us/uscis-office-closings).
What if you had an appointment before the offices closed?
Asylum offices will automatically reschedule asylum interviews. Asylum applicants will receive a new interview notice with the new time, date and location for the interview.
Likewise, USCIS will send notices to applicants to reschedule naturalization ceremonies. In some situations, USCIS will conduct smaller ceremonies as a precaution against COVID-19. The agency advises to watch for a scheduling notice, but if one doesn’t arrive within 90 days of the office opening, contact USCIS through its Contact Center.
Immigration applicants and petitioners will also receive notices from USCIS regarding their interviews or appointments at a field office. But those who had other appointments must reschedule through the USCIS Contact Center once field offices are open to the public.
USCIS will automatically reschedule Application Support Center appointments. Individuals will receive a new appointment letter in the mail. Certain centers will resume in-person processing of biometrics, including fingerprinting and photographs.
Even though certain USCIS offices are temporarily closed, limited emergency in-person services are still available. Call the USCIS Contact Center, 800-375-5283, for assistance.
What can you expect when USCIS offices open?
Everyone will need to abide by Centers for Disease Control guidelines. That means:
- Visitors will go through a health screening. People may not enter if they have any symptoms of COVID-19 (cough, fever or difficulty breathing); have been in close contact with anyone who has or might have had COVID-19 in the last 14 days; or have been directed to self-quarantine by a health care provider or public health official within the last 14 days.
- Visitors may not enter more than 15 minutes prior to their appointment (30 minutes for naturalization ceremonies).
- Hand sanitizers are available at entry points.
- Masks are required.
- Floors will be marked and physical barriers erected to ensure social distancing.
- Individuals are encouraged to bring their own black or blue ink pens to avoid sharing.
USCIS has adopted specific restrictions on who and who can’t attend meetings and interviews, in order to reduce the number of people in the offices and waiting rooms. This also means changes in the way applications are processed and ceremonies are conducted to ensure as little personal contact as possible.
If you are seeking asylum …
Be prepared for a video interview rather than a person-to-person interview. Applicants will sit in one room and the interviewing officer will sit in another room, using mobile phones or other technology to converse while ensuring that the officer, applicant, interpreter and representative can safely maintain social distancing.
During affirmative asylum interviews, applicants must bring immediate family members listed as dependents and an English-speaking interpreter, if necessary. Also, a representative, witness, individual providing disability accommodations, or “trusted adult” if an applicant is a minor may attend the interview.
Interviews with non-detained credible or reasonable fear applicants must include family members listed on the interview notice. Representatives may attend credible and reasonable fear interviews but are encouraged to participate over the telephone. USCIS will provide contracted, professional interpreters for these interviews.
If you are ready to take your Oath of Allegiance …
Be prepared for a shortened naturalization ceremony to limit exposure among those attending. All the legally required portions of the ceremony will take place, either before a judge or USCIS administrator. But the ceremony will be cut short by eliminating the multimedia portion. Three videos, designed to make the ceremony memorable, are tributes to America’s immigrant history, landscapes, ideals and values in picture and song. Then new citizens are welcomed into the country by the president in a fourth video. While they will no longer be shown at the ceremony, they have been made available online.
There is also a change in who can attend. Family and friends used to be invited to witness this important moment. Not any more. Attendance will be limited to the naturalization candidate and one individual providing assistance to a candidate with disabilities.
If you are applying for permanent residence or citizenship …
Be aware of restrictions at Field Offices and Application Support Centers.
At Field Offices, visitors are limited to the applicant, one representative and one family member or individual providing disability accommodations. The Application Support Centers will permit the applicant, an interpreter, attorney, parent/legal guardian of a minor or individual providing assistance to a disabled person.
If you want to avoid the hassle …
Be tech-savvy. The most convenient and interactive way to submit USCIS forms and communicate with the agency is online. While you will never be able to avoid required appointments, the USCIS has a variety of online tools (USCIS.gov/tools) to assist you in becoming a citizen. Using these tools, you can create an online account with USCIS, then file documents, make appointments, follow your case status, and more, all electronically.
For the most up-to-date information on office openings, hours, restrictions, and services, follow USCIS online at USCIS.gov or on Twitter.