Federal immigration services offices to be shuttered

Move comes after attorneys, employees voice concern over crowded work space during coronavirus

Updated Tuesday evening: Staffers and a spokesperson from US Citizenship and Immigration Services confirmed with CommonWealth that the agency is suspending “all face-to-face services” with applicants at all field and asylum offices nationwide from Wednesday, March 18, to at least April 1. USCIS field offices will send notices to applicants with scheduled appointments and naturalization ceremonies impacted by this move. Asylum offices will send interview cancellation notices and automatically reschedule asylum interviews. 

IMAGINE STICKING YOUR finger into a fingerprint scanner that hasn’t been and won’t be cleaned after dozens, if not hundreds, of other people have touched it. That’s what local US Citizenship and Immigration Services employees describe taking place at their offices as they worry about what that could mean for immigrants submitting to the scans and fret about catching coronavirus themselves.

As schools, government offices, courts, and almost every facet of Massachusetts life grinds to a halt, the local office of the citizenship and immigration services is continuing to process large numbers of immigrants who seek citizenship and continued legal status, with little heed being paid to the unfolding pandemic.

The agency has not put out a statement on whether it will shut down its office in the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston and put in place protocols to postpone appointments.

On any given day, it’s not unusual for at least 50 people to be sitting in the waiting room, crammed together. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance this week urging that no more than 10 people gather in one place in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s a very bad situation at work and USCIS is going to end up killing someone,” said an employee at the local US Citizenship and Immigration Services office. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described dozens of officers sharing one container of Lysol wipes in an effort to avoid contracting the new coronavirus. The staffer, along with two others, said that hundreds of people go through the waiting room every day.

The USCIS agent described not being given gloves, poor quality soap in bathrooms that won’t lather, and a total lack of guidance in the wake of the virus outbreak. Receptionists are wearing gloves, and interviewing officers are politely noting that hands should not be shaken, but there has been little other direction, say workers.

“No one in leadership reminded anyone to wipe things down as far as I know,” said another employee, who described people sticking their fingers into biometric machines without them being cleaned afterward.

USCIS has a post on its site saying people who feel ill can request rescheduling. But Lexington immigration attorney Andrew Howard points out that some people don’t show symptoms of COVID-19 and may think they’re fine, and clients are reluctant to put in a rescheduling request when they can’t be assured it will be granted and worry that their case could drag on for years.

“USCIS is working closely with our partners across [the Department of Homeland Security] and the federal government, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” a spokesman for USCIS said on Monday. “USCIS takes the health and safety of our workforce seriously and has instructed the agency workforce to follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of respiratory and influenza disease. Accordingly, USCIS will continually assess protocols in place and will evaluate whether further precautions may become necessary.” A district director in New Hampshire made the decision to shutdown a local office there–this is a decision that could be made at either a federal or district USCIS level.

Veronica Serrato, executive director of Project Citizenship, an organization that helps immigrants with naturalization, a process handled by USCIS, said many of the people her group works with are not well-informed on the coronavirus crisis.

“People are in the dark. Immigrants aren’t really as aware of the virus as others are,” Serrato said. She said many of the organization’s clients are not on Facebook or other social media, and many don’t have jobs that allow them to work at home.

Immigration attorneys can call a central USCIS telephone number to request to rescheduled appointment, but there’s no certainty that the request will be accepted. After years of waiting for an interview to secure a green card, many clients are hesitant to reschedule.

Serrato said many of the volunteer attorneys handling cases through her agency are concerned about their clients’ wellbeing because a significant percentage of them are over 60, a population at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19. Some of younger clients have health problems that also put them at higher risk.

There coronavirus crisis is also leading to a shortage of interpreters at immigration hearings or interviews, said Janeth Moreno, an attorney with an immigration-focused firm in Boston.

“They haven’t been available because they haven’t wanted to go outside [their houses],” said Moreno. “It’s a challenge we’re trying to overcome.” Moreno has had some luck in filing requests for postponements, but thinks there needs to be an across the board rule issued giving a timeline for when appointments will be rescheduled.

Moreno, who is working remotely, worries about attorneys and clients stepping into a crowded waiting room with little ventilation.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Howard, the Lexington attorney, is hoping that USCIS can follow the White House’s updated guidelines, which say to avoid congregating in groups of more than 10 people, and reschedule all interviews though April 6.

“It seems off that the Department of Homeland Security, charged with protecting us from threats at home, is seemingly the last to react to the reality of the pandemic.”