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For some immigrants, pandemic puts citizenship on hold

As Americans continue to grapple with the daily nightmares of COVID-19, some outside the country are still seeking the American dream of becoming a citizen. 

Those dreams have been put on hold, however, with embassies closed and naturalization ceremonies deferred.

President Donald Trump signed a proclamation April 22 “suspending entry of immigrants who present risk to the U.S. labor market during the economic recovery following the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Though there are exceptions, the president’s proclamation halts green card and immigrant visa issuances until 11:59 p.m. June 22.

"This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens,” President Trump said.

But the order includes a long list of exemptions, including anyone who is currently in the country, those seeking entry to work as physicians and nurses, wealthy foreign investors, and the spouses and minor children of American citizens. The 60-day pause also leaves untouched the hundreds of thousands of temporary work and student visas the U.S. issues each year.

With consulates closed, almost all visa processing by the State Department has been suspended for weeks. Since the vast majority of employment-based green card applicants already live in the U.S., the proclamation Trump signed in April will mostly affect the parents, adult children and siblings of citizens and permanent residents hoping to one day join them in the country. 

Immigration attorney Jama Ibrahim said many people are waiting for interviews for green cards at embassies outside of the country.

“Even if they get an interview (before the order expires), they cannot come in,” Ibrahim said.

These people now waiting for green card interviews have already completed an application that has gone to the U.S. Department of State, with their file now at an embassy closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“For U.S. citizen spouses, their spouses can actually get the green card if the embassy is issuing it within the 60 days,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim said he has mostly been working with U.S. citizen spouses and U.S. citizen children trying to bring their parents into the country. Most of these cases started a couple of years ago.

“They’ve already been going through the process for a couple of years and now they’re ready to go,” Ibrahim said.

Since March 18, naturalization ceremonies have been suspended through at least June 3.

“In certain limited situations, (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) may be able to perform small naturalization ceremonies for limited numbers of applicants, when it is feasible and all appropriate precautions can be taken,” according to the citizenship website.

The Times reached out to multiple citizenship and immigration services’ spokespeople to find how many people have had their naturalization ceremonies delayed. Multiple attempts for comment were not returned.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the policy could result in 52,600 fewer green cards if it stays in place for 60 days. If extended for a whole year, that could lead to 316,000 fewer green cards.

With 1,030,990 issued in 2019, a full year of the policy would result in a 31% decrease in green card issuances.

Matt O’Brien of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower immigration rates, estimated anywhere from 5,000 to 80,000 green cards could be delayed by the order. But since international travel has ground to a halt, he said in a statement, "it’s difficult to say whether these folks will even notice a temporary pause in the processing of their visa applications.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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