America cannot afford to abandon immigrants during — and after...

America cannot afford to abandon immigrants during — and after — the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Brad Greeff

It is not business as usual.

This is clear across industries, and while Americans are suitably concerned about what the future holds, immigrants in the United States are experiencing confusion and uncertainty unheard of in a generation. 

As coronavirus continues to spread throughout the United States, I have fielded questions that tend to come from individuals in two categories: visa holders inside and outside the country. While no cases are exactly the same, one thing is universal — things are changing daily and guidance from the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is, to put it kindly, evolving.

For those in the United States, it’s important to distinguish between the type of visa they possess — a non-immigrant visa, which allows for a specific period of lawful presence in the country, and an immigrant visa, which authorizes permanent residence (or a green card). Job loss may require them to leave the United States to avoid accruing unlawful presence. But this may change. The U.S. government recently issued guidance that persons who entered the country under ESTA — a program that allows entry without a visa for short term travel and tourism and limited business activities — can request a 30-day extension of their stay in limited circumstances. It is possible that similar accommodations will be made for other classes of non-immigrants unable to depart due to COVID-19. Additionally, there is considerable confusion regarding unemployment insurance and similar social welfare programs, particularly given the Trump administration’s push to bar anyone who may become a “public charge.” Employers should consider the ramifications of terminating employees versus furloughing, and consider workers who rely on employment not only for a paycheck, but also to stay compliant with immigration law. Some immigrants will inevitably need to make the agonizing choice to leave the United States to avoid violating U.S. immigration law, or attempt to return to their home countries if they still can.

The future is even harder to predict for individuals outside the country. The U.S. government has banned persons who have been to more than a dozen countries, including France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia,  Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom within 14 days before their arrival. American citizens and green card holders may return, but must enter through one of 13 U.S. airports, including Boston-Logan, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International, Newark Liberty, and Kennedy.

The bottom line is that America has always been a safe haven for immigrants and must remain that way. It must take care of visitors and neighbors in other nations just as we hope our own citizens abroad will be treated. One thing is certain: coronavirus will end. And when it does, we will rely on talent from across the globe — in healthcare, tech, the arts and education — to come to live and work in the United States and help us rebuild to move forward as one.

Michael Wildes is a former federal prosecutor now in private practice specializing in immigration law. He is also the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey.