Rochester has long been a site for refugee resettlement. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, taking in individuals fleeing their home countries has come to a halt.
“We are not receiving any clients due to COVID-19,” said Lisa Hoyt, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Family Center. “We’re looking for a possible resume the first week of May, but I tend to think that would be unlikely because a lot of folks may not have their documents.”
Tens of thousands of refugees have come to call Rochester home through the years. CFC began its refugee resettlement program some 35 years ago and until recently worked with 700 to 750 refugees a year. It is the region’s only refugee resettlement program.
“Rochester used to receive on average about 750 refugees a year. My numbers have plummeted to just a couple hundred over the last couple of years, and this year I was going to be lucky to make it to 200,” Hoyt said.
That’s important because these are individuals who are risking their lives and the safety of family members by staying in their home countries. The global pandemic has had a deep impact on resettlement.
“Let’s say I was scheduled to leave the refugee camp because I was coming to America and that would have happened March 31. Because the camps are not in the cities where the airports are, we would have left our tent, I would have given away all my possessions because I can’t bring my pots and pans or my blanket with me on the plane. I would have lost my spot in that camp, traveled to the airport and now I’m restricted, I can’t go,” Hoyt explained. “I have to go back to that camp, but I don’t have anything that I had before so I’m starting all over again. Now I’m in even worse shape than I was when I left there.
“In general, the whole immigration system—the refugee resettlement process—is at a standstill,” she added. “The immigration adjustment-of-status folks are in limbo; nothing’s happening with them. It’s a mess.”
CFC has an immigration team that helps with applications for family reunification, citizenship and adjustment of status, Hoyt said. The agency continues to perform its services, but with limited face-to-face contact because of the pandemic.
“These applications are so crucial, accuracy has to be perfect because you can ruin somebody’s chances of becoming a citizen or their application being approved if you don’t have everything exactly right,” she said. “If we’re not in person with them we risk miscommunications or misunderstanding of some of the questions. And if that happens we can jeopardize their case.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, initially closed its offices to immigration processing until May 3, said Hannah Vickner Hough, immigration program director at the Legal Aid Society of Rochester.
“What that means is there are no in-person appointments, so people that were waiting for interviews on the basis of their applications, people that needed to go for fingerprint and photo appointments are on hold,” Vickner Hough said.
Additionally, individuals’ citizenship and naturalization ceremonies are on hold. Until an immigrant takes the oath of citizenship, even if she passed all of her exams, she cannot become a citizen.
“That’s stalled in the process right now,” Vicner Hough said. “That affects refugees in terms of accessing their green cards if they are in the green card renewal process, and then also accessing citizenship.”
Refugees still have permission to work, but that can be a problem because they lack valid documentation to demonstrate they can work due to the offices being closed, particularly if their identity documents expire while the USCIS office is closed.
“Employers are often hesitant to continue employment if that documentation isn’t updated,” Vickner Hough said.
The pandemic is affecting immigration courts, said Vickner Hough—whose nonprofit organization helps clients obtain green cards, apply for asylum, obtain citizenship, work through removal proceedings and more—in that local immigration courts have paused in-person hearings until May 1, but the local detention center has not postponed hearings, which means removal and deportations are still happening.
“The courts are trying to conduct them telephonically, which means every single person that’s involved in the proceeding is sitting in a different room,” Vickner Hough said. “But that has some due process considerations that they aren’t able to present evidence or speak to things that are being presented.”
Temporary agricultural workers, or those holding H-2A visas, also have been affected by COVID-19. On March 20, USCIS announced the immediate and temporary suspension of premium processing service due to the pandemic.
“For H-2A workers specifically, they are now starting to process those on an emergency basis,” said L.J. D’Arrigo, partner and co-leader of Harris Beach PLLC’s immigration practice. “The government is realizing that agriculture is critical right now to keep the food supply moving. We can’t afford to not have workers here planting the crops.”
Typically an H-2A visa worker would need to appear in person for an interview at the consulate to be screened, D’Arrigo noted.
“But what they just did was make an exception for any worker who was previously in the U.S. during the prior year to have a waiver of that in-person interview, so they’re allowed to mail their passports into the consulate if they meet that waiver criteria and then they’ll mail the passports back,” he said. “At that point, they’re free to travel to the U.S. But that’s a limited segment of workers that apply, ones that were here last year.”
While the hope is that the virus will be contained and the curve will soon flatten, opening up our borders to immigrants and refugees could take some time. CFC will continue to serve its immigrant population, Hoyt said.
“It’s a mess. But it’s a mess for everyone,” she said. “It’s just that these folks are traumatized in ways we don’t understand. We’re complaining because we have to stay in our nice, luxury homes with running water and heat and they’re coming from places that don’t have any of that. It’s a hard time for refugee resettlement and refugee immigration work.”
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