COVID-19 will shake up US immigration for a long time (and it’s bad news)

US immigration looks muddier the longer COVID-19 lurks around. The next few months are going to be critical as immigration begins to rebound and safety measures must be enforced.

Clearly, we want to prevent importing more COVID-19. So with increased awareness, the focus will likely be on preventing infectious or unvaccinated travelers from entering.

That’s where the problem lies. The world may not be able to keep up with healthcare standards dictated by the US. As a result, there may be severe delays, potential abuse of discretionary power, and discrimination of sick patients — all in the name of keeping the public safe.

There are four major problems that COVID-19 will raise for US immigration, and almost all of them result in further drops in immigration and tourism income for the US.

Impact # 1: COVID Vaccinations may be required by ALL travelers

A COVID vaccination (whenever it becomes available) may be listed by the CDC for immigration clearance just like how Polio, Measles, Mumps, etc. vaccinations are.

Currently the US only requires vaccinations of immigrants such as spouses, children, parents coming to live as Legal Permanent Residents. Tourist visa applications (B1/B2), for example, don’t need medical clearance. But consider what happens if the US suddenly wants all 7.5+ million annual applicants (source USDOS) to be vaccinated for COVID-19 (again, when it’s available) before entry.

Enforcing such a program quickly raises lots of concerns. If millions of people need vaccinations at the same time, how will the overburdened system handle it? Who gets to oversee if vaccines are being administered correctly? How would third world countries handle shortage of supplies?

It will be prohibitively difficult for anyone to enter the US or become a Legal Permanent Resident. It’ll be especially difficult for poorer countries with wobbly healthcare systems to keep up with vaccines compliance. The resulting decline in tourism and immigration will mean bad news for the US economy.

Impact # 2: Unchecked Power to indiscriminately place travel bans

The US may grant even greater discretionary authority to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “protect our borders”.

There may be routine travel or visa bans placed on countries experiencing outbreaks while the US Health departments actively monitor global conditions. For example, if x% of new cases in a specific country test positive for COVID-19, there may be an automatic ban placed until conditions improve.

But who’s to say the US won’t get trigger happy and apply them without waiting for official numbers? In fact, can we even trust official figures from foreign governments?

How can we be sure the DHS doesn’t potentially block people, entire countries or regions based on a whim, suspicion, or reports before they’re confirmed. Looking at the current list of bans, it’s clear the US isn’t shy to pull the trigger (USDOS), but who’s to be held accountable in the future for bans placed carelessly?

Yet again, the ones likely to suffer are third-world countries where healthcare systems are unable to keep up — where the US can’t reliably measure the severity of outbreaks and decides to not take the risk. Legitimate visa applicants, refugees, asylum seekers and others may be turned away or at least rigorously tested before being admissible. The resulting delays may drag on for years — which is, again, bad for the US economy.

Impact # 3: Sick Applicants may be treated unfairly

Currently, the US doesn’t test incoming immigrants for every disease under the sun; we only check certain communicable diseases and ailments that interfere with their ability to live a normal and productive life. Applicants are checked for Tuberculosis, for example, but not diabetes or high blood pressure (unless it’s severe). In the future, though, the US may become critical with any health deviation.

In 2019, before COVID-19 was a household name, denials due to communicable disease was less than 1% for US immigrant visas (INA 212(a)(4), USDOS).

New safety measures, however, may give authorities an impetus to deny more borderline cases. That’s because the policy of “Totality of Circumstances” instructs immigration officers to assess if the applicant’s health is a threat to US society.

Could the US be less tolerant of immigrants with underlying health conditions simply because they’re “too old” or susceptible to spread disease such as COVID — even if it’s not necessarily an inadmissible health condition? How do we make sure travelers with weak immune systems or ailments are not unfairly rejected?

In fact, how do we prevent healed COVID-19 patients from being discriminated against?

Impact # 4: Delays spanning months if not years

As a result of all these problems, demand in immigration will sink and a spiral of increasing delays will last for months or even years.

With the USCIS working on reduced staffing due to shortage of new petitions and fees to keep them afloat, it could snowball into slower processing times. Slower speeds will disincentivize applicants from petitioning, further diminishing the USCIS’s income stream, leading to even fewer staff. It’ll be a never-ending negative feedback loop.

Secondly, the US consulates abroad (responsible for interviewing travelers) may work on a reduced staff ratio. Whereas they interview hundreds of applicants a day, they may cut it down to only a few dozen to comply with social distancing. Similar to the USCIS, Embassies will be less productive, have less income, and even fewer staff. Another downward spiral.

Unless the US consulates build bigger buildings to house more waiting rooms while being social-distance compliant, it may be impossible to operate at the same capacity as before. Besides, with real estate as a premium in many countries, it may not even be possible to increase their footprint.

How we can handle a post COVID-19 immigration rebound

So with all things considered — the delays, vaccinations, and potential of power abuse — will immigration to the US still be in demand in the future? Should we even care?

Of course the world will still want to come to the US; that much is given. But to what degree and how “badly” would they want to? That remains to be seen as I think travel demand will drop even after COVID-19 threats subside.

You see, with increased delays, legal roadblocks and general nose-turning from the US, the world may not be in love with us as much as before. And we should care about this.

Without getting into a whole nother topic, the influx of immigration provides tourism income, skilled labor, technology, culture, and more. Without this steady source, for instance, the economy will suffer adding fuel to the COVID-19 fire.

However, there are ways to prepare for a rebound and prevent an economic nightmare.

Adopt a Digital Culture

With reduced space, capacity, and staff, perhaps the US should adopt a digital culture. Instead of in-person interviews, maybe video interviews are the way to go… where applicants don’t go to a Consulate or USCIS office to apply, but in front of a laptop through video conferencing.

I know this has lots of potential for problems — communication problems, inability to detect body language, potential for fraud, etc. — but maybe we can begin pilot programs for this and see how far it goes. Perhaps we do it for a limited set of “low fraud risk” categories such as family immigration, investors, etc. and gauge success before extending it to more categories.

Invest in worldwide healthcare systems

This is probably the craziest-sounding idea, but hear me out. What if the US modernizes healthcare systems for the rest of the world? This would mean we can reliably allow more travelers in without being as rigorous in detecting COVID-19 threats.

Dedicated booths can be set up in foreign countries for travelers. US Health officials and staff can personally oversee the vaccination process before allowing travelers in.

This way, we would cheaply allow more qualified immigrants to come to the US with the added benefit of improving healthcare in countries who cannot afford it. Besides, with better healthcare, applicants will be inclined to return home to their countries (after all, the US’s main concern is visitors don’t return home after a US trip). This will help reduce fraud, work for investigation agencies, and save time.

The next few months are critical

If conditions remain as they are, authorities will not be prepared for the rebound in immigration once threats from COVID-19 subside and borders reopen.

The reopening of world borders will bring an array of challenges. For example, if the US requires vaccinations from all immigrants, it will pressure healthcare systems and poorer countries may not be able cope. This will spiral delays out of control.

In addition, some applicants will be unfairly targeted if they’re already in ill health. Authorities may exercise unchecked discretion on denying visas, and the potential of abuse is going to be great.

It may take years — if not decades — to recover from this if not handled properly. Already, COVID-19 shutdowns around the world have shown negative consequences, of which the USCIS furlough is a gleaming example. That’s why a rigorous plan needs to be in place for the upcoming surge in immigration.

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