THE BOSTON OFFICE of the federal immigration agency that deals with the country’s naturalization process reopened today, 11 weeks after shutting down most in-person services due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A spokesperson said that USCIS is following the Trump administration’s three-phase guidelines for reopening the country as well as Department of Homeland Security and health officials’ policies and social distancing safety guidelines. The agency said employees will continue to telework whenever possible.
In-person services will be limited to things like getting a passport stamped or scheduling oath ceremonies. The agency said it continues to accept and work on applications and petitions, and was doing so during the temporary closure.
USCIS is charged with processing immigrant visa petitions, naturalization, green card, asylum, and refugee applications. It also makes adjudicative decisions on those applications and manages immigration benefits, including employment authorization.
On March 18, the agency temporarily suspended in-person services at its field offices, asylum offices, and application support centers. It continued to provide limited emergency in-person services.
Sources at the Boston office say that citizenship oath ceremonies will begin in Boston on June 8, with a limit of 10 people allowed in a room.
The agency’s asylum offices will conduct video-facilitated interviews, with applicants at the office but seated in a separate room from the interviewing officer.
Visitors can expect plexiglass barriers at front counters and other areas, and will be required to wear face coverings if they are over the age of two. They will also be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and contact with anyone who is infected. Those answering yes to any questions won’t be allowed in. The agency said there will be no penalty for requesting to reschedule an appointment due to coronavirus concerns.
To limit the number of people in the waiting room, applicants with scheduled appointments can only be accompanied by an attorney, interpreter, parent — or if the applicant is a child, an immediate family member who is a guardian.
USCIS agents will be allowed to travel out of state, but will have to self-isolate following that travel for two weeks. They will be required to wear face coverings, which will be provided by their branch’s management.
Employees who have underlying conditions and may be high-risk for COVID-19 more severe complications can voluntarily disclose their health information to their supervisor, and make arrangements that allow them to work from home or use leave.
Mahsa Khanbabai, chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s New England Chapter, said the organization is pleased that immigration services is reopening, while taking precautions to protect the public. “Individuals have been waiting months and sometimes years to have their cases adjudicated and the reopening under safe conditions is much needed,” she said.
Project Citizenship, an organization that works with immigrants seeking to become citizens, and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program sent a letter today asking federal court judges in Boston to resume citizenship ceremonies. They said they’re concerned that the long wait has left some people ineligible to apply for benefits like unemployment, and has also prevented them voting.
USCIS said that naturalization ceremonies will be limited to candidates whose oath-taking had already been scheduled. Over 7,000 people in Massachusetts are waiting to take the oath to become citizens, according to the organization. The agency did not confirm an exact number before publishing.
The organization is suggesting outdoor ceremonies, remote ceremonies, and even foregoing administration of the oath, with USCIS simply issuing naturalization certificates.
“Our concern is that due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, USCIS will likely only be able to naturalize a handful of individuals at each ceremony, said Sameer Ahmed, clinical instructor at the Harvard program. “Given that the federal court previously held large-scale oath ceremonies for hundreds of individuals, we believe that the agency’s current effort will be unable to resolve the significant backlog in a timely manner.”
Meanwhile, staff members at the USCIS office in Boston say they are concerned about being able to implement social distancing and disinfecting policies safely. “I’ve lost faith in leadership at the agency. I’m not sure we can ensure the safety of the public with these measures,“ said one employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.
Employees are also concerned about furloughs recently announced by the agency, which has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without congressional intervention by July 20, USCIS said last week that it will need to furlough employees. A USCIS spokesperson said the agency is seeking one-time emergency funding of $1.2 billion to maintain operations. “Importantly, this funding proposal protects American taxpayers by not adding to the deficit and requiring USCIS to pay the money back to the US Treasury,“ said the official.
Two local employees said they have received no notification on whether the Boston office will be impacted.
USCIS is a fee-funded agency that has had fluctuations in revenue based on application and petition receipt levels. Because of the pandemic, the agency said it has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue collections and estimates that application and petition receipts will drop by 61 percent through the end of the 2020 fiscal year.