The Impact of Travel Restrictions Caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic on Consular Processing and Extension of Status

By Giorgio Polacco*
The global Corona Virus pandemic is affecting the socio-economic fabric of Western democracies. After the epicenter first moved from China to Europe, and then from Europe to the United States, the virus continues its inexorable march while we all await a possible containment.
Worldwide, countries have issued travel bans in and out of their borders, and the United States’ partial closure of its borders with Mexico and Canada is no exception. But what are the immediate effects of these restrictions on those who have already started a Consular Visa Process or are currently in the United States with an expiring Visa?
Closure of U.S. Embassies or Consulates abroad
The first and inevitable problem is the closure of American Consulates and Embassies abroad for public safety reasons. All appointments and interviews for Visas have been suspended and postponed until a later date. The consular authorities instruct everyone whose appointment has been canceled not to book a new appointment, but to wait for direct communication from the consular authority itself. Such a wait can adversely affect those applying for Nonimmigrant and Immigrant Visa Processing at Consular Posts. Indeed, prolonged delay for the issuance of Visa can result in a serious loss in terms of Investment, not allowing the individuals to return to the United States and manage their business. In such circumstances, we recommend to return to the United States as soon as possible and to seek legal counsel to apply for a Change or Adjustment of Status to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).
Risk of overstaying your B-1/B-2 Visa Status
Another major issue caused by the travel restrictions is the risk of overstaying (equals remaining illegally in the United States). Indeed, many individuals are now stranded in the United States with an expiring B-1/B-2 Visa. In this case, we recommend seeking legal counsel and requesting, if available, an Extension of Stay by filing Form I-539 (and I-539A, if any dependants) with USCIS, before the authorized status expires. This may be a suitable option, especially in light of the U.S. Department of States Global Level 4 Health Advisory to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. To this end, the USCIS provides for a procedure to request an extension of status in the event of a natural disaster and other extreme situations, including, in this case, the COVID-19 emergency.
ESTA Extension
Generally, extending the ESTA status may be complicated. However, during the COVID-19 outbreak, going back to the countries of origin may not be an option – especially those countries where the emergency has led national health systems to collapse, including Italy, Spain, or France, among others. In this case, seeking legal counsel and request a Satisfactory Departure with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), to extend the ESTA status, is highly recommended. Pursuant to 8 CFR 217.3(a), the District Director having jurisdiction may, in its discretion and in case of serious emergency, grant a period not exceeding 30 days, thus allowing the individual to avoid overstaying his status. Therefore, we hope that the authorities can exercise common sense during this international crisis, and  validating ESTA extension requests made to the CPB.
*Giorgio Polacco is an immigration attorney at Arce Immigration Law, P.A., practicing between Miami and Rome, Italy. A Florida licensed attorney, Polacco is experienced in many aspects of immigration and international law and handles the Firm’s relationship with American-European clients.