The global crisis caused by COVID-19 has created countless problems for foreigners who resided or planned to reside in the United States and did not have US citizenship or permanent residence (“Green Card”), as well as for the companies that employed them or planned to.
Immigration restrictions and travel bans imposed suddenly and unilaterally by the US administration in recent months have created situations of all kinds. It is difficult to estimate the number of people residing in the United States who have been indefinitely blocked outside the country, away from their families, their homes and their jobs. Those who were in the US do not know when they will be able to travel to their country of origin due to the impossibility of returning while the travel bans last. Those who expected to move to the US, with very few exceptions, have had to delay their plans without being able to determine when they will be able to do so.
All this has also impacted many companies, both US and foreign-owned, that depended on the contribution of foreign workers who have been blocked outside the country or who cannot enter until the situation is resolved. The concern is enormous in the US business sector. The CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, said the following in a June 11 letter sent to President Trump in which he advocated for preventing additional barriers to immigration:
“As the economy rebounds, American businesses will need assurances that they can meet
all their workforce needs. To that end, it is crucial that they have access to talent both
domestically and from around the world. “
We will review the current status of the immigration suspension in the US, international travel bans and the availability of international flights for such transfers. We will discuss the impact and value of these restrictions, and we will venture to make a forecast on how this situation may evolve.
This article uses the information available on June 22, 2020. Logically the situation will evolve significantly in the coming weeks or months, we hope that in a positive sense. The best references to obtain updated information at all times are:
- Information on travel bans from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- The USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) page for everything related to immigration to the US
- The US Embassy in the country of origin (complete list)
- The US consulate in the country of origin
- The embassy of the country of origin in the USA
2. International travel bans
Since the beginning of the crisis, the US has been imposing travel restrictions through different presidential proclamations, prohibiting entry to the country to international travelers who had passed through certain regions in the previous 14 days, excluding US citizens, permanent residents (those who were already in possession of a “Green Card”) and special cases. As of today, 6 such proclamations have been issued, practically identical. None of them have been modified in essence since then and will remain in force indefinitely until they are canceled:
- January 31: China (excluding Hong Kong and Macao)
- February 29: Iran
- March 11: European countries from the Schengen area (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland).
- March 14: United Kingdom and Ireland
- May 24: Brazil followed by a small amendment on May 25
The travel bans established in the US impact 2.1 billion people residing in the affected countries and any traveler who has transited through them in the previous 14 days
Some details that are important to consider:
- Nationality is not relevant in any case, all that matters is having been physically in any of the countries or areas mentioned in the 14 days prior to arrival in the US. Therefore, in principle a person of any nationality who accredits having been in a country not included in the list during the 2 weeks prior to the arrival of the US would have no problem entering as long as they had the corresponding visa.
- The proclamations exclude a number of cases from the ban, including direct family members of people with US citizenship and permanent residents, as well as people with special visas A-1, A-2, C-2, C-3, G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, NATO-1 to NATO-4, or NATO-6 and exceptional cases (see details in each proclamation).
- Certain foreign professional athletes (and their assistants) who compete in leagues and competitions in the US have recently been excluded (May 22) from the ban, due to plans to resume them (ref DHS).
- People who come from the aforementioned countries who are authorized to return to the US will only be able to enter the country through 15 airports (ref DHS), which are the only ones that have some direct flights with restricted regions.
- All international travelers are asked by CDC (without monitoring compliance) to self-impose a 14-day quarantine (ref CDC).
- Each state can impose mandatory local standards that must checked carefully.
Independently, the US has agreed with Canada and Mexico on some restrictions on travel across borders shared with each country, as indicated by DHS, but do not apply to air travel and have many exclusions.
3. Immigration suspension
On April 22, President Trump issued a proclamation suspending Immigrant Visas (“Green Cards”). This is a 60-day suspension applicable only to new applications for permanent residence. It includes some exceptions, among which the EB-5 visa program for immigrant investors stands out.
Additionally, today, June 22, President Trump signed a new decree by which said suspension has been extended until the end of 2020 and has been expanded to include many types of work visas such as H-1B (specialized workers). , H-2B (temporary non-agricultural workers), “certain” H-4 (spouse of person with H-1B visa), L (transfer of workers between units of a multinational) and “certain” J (recently graduated students, internships in exchange programs). Details will follow in the coming days.
As of today, there do not appear to be any plans to suspend other visas such as trader (E1), investor (E2) and other types (eg. B, O, P, R, U, TN, V).
Unlike travel restrictions, whose motivation is to contain the spread of the virus on US soil, in this case what is intended is to give a political message that the jobs of US citizens are being protected against the high growth of the unemployment rate caused by the crisis (13.3% in May, 10 points above the rate that existed at the beginning of the year), which is explicitly indicated in the decree.
The real impact of the suspension of new “Green Cards” is limited, about 50,000 in recent months (ref Sputniknews). However, around half a million non-immigrant work visas of the types that have just been blocked are authorized each year.
The truth is that de facto there has been a huge reduction in the number of work visas processed in recent months (93% less in April than in January according to CBC), probably due to the cancellation or delay of in-person interviews during confinement that has affected most of the US consulates worldwide. Only cases considered as emergencies were being processed. Since June 4, USCIS offices have progressively begun standardizing their in-person customer service (ref USCIS). Throughout the month of June, the USCIS has been restarting the accelerated processing service (premium) that had been stopped for different forms (ref USCIS).
As is logical, special treatment has been given to doctors, nurses and other health professionals, facilitating, where appropriate, everything related to obtaining visas and entering the country.
The ‘visa waiver’ program that allows citizens from a list of countries (which includes most of the European Union) continues to operate and allows tourist or work visits of less than 90 days without visa processing. only an authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization or ESTA. Obviously, the trip will be possible if the travel bans described in the previous section do not prevent it.
4. Availability of international flights
If we already have a visa and assuming that the existing travel bans do not affect us, the next issue is finding a flight to make the transfer. A large part of international flights worldwide are still canceled or have a reduced availability. The following figure (ref Kayak) shows the current degree of openness of the borders in the world, on the date of publication of this article.
According to the same source, there are currently 126 countries whose borders are completely closed (except for people of the corresponding nationality and residents), 64 countries are partially closed, 7 are due to open in the next few days, and 22 currently have no formal restrictions. Therefore, even though the United States continues to allow residents of many countries to enter, the availability of flights with those who have closed their borders will be scarce.
On the other hand, a CDC global travel alert (the first one ever issued in history), which recommends avoiding non-essential international travel, has been active since March 27. This also contributes to a very low demand and therefore to a huge limitation on flight options.
In any case, due to the improvements in the last month in many countries, as the reopening progresses, many airlines are announcing increases in the international flights offered for the coming weeks. It is necessary to contact the airlines to receive updated information. Be prepared for last minute cancellations and changes, which are frequent due to the volatility of the current situation.
5. Do travel bans make any sense?
The following figures show the number of active cases of COVID-19 per million population worldwide and in the 48 contiguous United States (source Worldometers, data from June 19). Spain, the United Kingdom and Sweden have not provided this measure for a long time and are therefore not included. In the case of Spain, it is reasonable to estimate that its level is similar to that of other European countries at an advanced stage of opening.
The following table combines the data for the countries and states of the United States, showing the values of the 50 territories with the highest rates. Countries with no restrictions on travel to the USA are marked in green and those with active bans are highlighted in red, as explained at the beginning of this article. The number of tests carried out per million population is also shown as an indication of the degree of reliability of the information.
As we can see, the US reaches the second highest rate of active cases of COVID-19 per capita, only behind Qatar. We also appreciate that a high number of states, starting with New York, have higher rates than any country.
|Country / State||Active cases/1M pop||Tests/1M pop|
|District Of Columbia||11,649||102,301|
Multiple sources (eg. The Atlantic, Cato, Fortune, VoxMedia) indicate that travel bans imposed by many countries have had limited impact, delaying but not reducing the effect of the pandemic on their territories and creating an image of false security that in the long run it may have been extremely damaging for having postponed the really effective measures of social distancing, use of masks and confinement.
If such prohibitions can be reasonable when the virus has not spread in a territory, as a protection measure, what is clear is that they lose their value when the number of active cases per million population is already significantly higher than in countries subject to the travel bans. This is precisely the current situation, as we have seen in the previous table.
If we accept the number of active cases per million population of a region as a measure of the risk posed by visitors who come from it, at present the possibilities of transmission of the virus to a community in the US are much greater in the case of a traveler from New York state (14,931 cases per million) compared to those raised by a person from Schengen (the highest is in Belgium, with 2,929), let alone China (0.18). However, countries such as Qatar, Peru or Russia, with rates much higher than those of European countries and similar to those of many states, currently have no restrictions on travel to the US.
On the other hand, there are hardly any barriers to mobility within the United States. Even during the confinement, already overcome in a good part of the country, hardly any controls were implemented to verify that citizens complied with the “stay-at-home orders” that prevented them from leaving their residence except for essential needs. As this New Scientist article explains, establishing “bubbles” with countries with similar levels of contagion and control, allowing travel within them, has been an effective strategy to allow a progressive opening of borders, as has been shown in various European countries and in other areas of the world. It would be desirable, although is not expected, that the US agrees and coordinates the evolution of its travel bans with the impacted countries.
Despite what has been said, the restrictions imposed unilaterally by the United States on travelers from certain countries have been maintained in recent months, with little variation. This has caused innumerable problems at the individual level and a gigantic impact on companies, particularly in sectors such as tourism and air transportation.
The US federal government is the one who makes the decisions regarding travel bans imposed on international visitors arriving from certain countries, as well as any extension or expansion of the measures that have suspended the management of certain types of visas, as explained in this article.
We are in an exceptional situation for many reasons, with a historical unemployment rate and enormous concern for the economy, just 5 months before the presidential elections. The Trump administration’s desire is to turn the page on the health crisis and boost the economy as quickly as possible so that it has the best chance of reelection.
Success in the fight against the virus in the US is very uneven, as we have seen. The East Coast states, led by New York, have suffered the highest impact so far but have also managed to effectively control the situation in the past month. However, recently other states such as California, Texas, Florida or Arizona have experienced a significant increase in the number of new cases. There is a delay of several weeks in the control of the pandemic as compared to most of the countries of the European Union that have already made notable progress in the reopening process.
Everything indicates that the barriers to immigration could continue until the end of the year. This essentially responds to a purely political motivation, explicitly expressed in the presidential proclamations, focused on transmitting a message to the population that the government is protecting the jobs of American citizens to the maximum extent. This vision, not shared by most economists or by many managers of companies that have been impacted substantially, is aligned with the protectionist and anti-immigration policy that the Trump administration has followed repeatedly since its inception in 2016.
The US business community has consistently conveyed its enormous concern about the economic impact of immigration barriers (as an example, the previously cited letter from the US Chamber of Commerce on June 11 and others like this one on April 16). Many of the affected foreign workers are not easily replaceable by US national employees because they require special skills that are not abundant in the labor market, this is particularly serious in the technology sector (ref San Francisco Chronicle). In some cases, the alternatives are simply non-existent, as is the case of internal transfer L-1 visas for multinationals, whose freeze will cancel many foreign direct investment plans in the US.
Many of the current restrictions on international travel to the US, as we have explained, have become obsolete and should be rationalized. There is an immense economic incentive for the US and its trading partners, and few solid reasons to maintain them from a health point of view. In this regard, we should see in the coming weeks the elimination of some travel bans for regions where the good evolution of the control of the pandemic demonstrated in the last month can be confirmed.
The immigration suspension has an essentially political origin, as explicitly stated in the presidential decrees. It is therefore probable that, in the coming months, with few exceptions, new immigrant visas (“Green Cards”) and certain non-immigrant visas (particularly types H1-B, H2-B, L-1 and J) will not be granted. Pressure from the US business sector could cut the duration and extent of these measures.
The bans on entry to international travelers from certain regions, imposed months ago by the United States and which have hardly been modified, should be updated in the near future to reflect the current reality of the evolution of the pandemic in different regions and mitigate the immense economic impact of these measures. A different question is whether other countries will increase their restrictions on travelers from the US, in view of the unfavorable evolution of the pandemic in this country compared to other regions of the world in recent months.
In this context, there is no alternative but to adapt to the situation and find the opportunities it provides, such as the export of remote services from abroad to the United States.
Markentry USA will continue to work with its clients, companies, entrepreneurs, executives and professionals from all over the world, to provide the necessary local support in the USA to successfully navigate this complicated situation. Contact us to discuss your needs in detail.