As governments continue to grapple with concerns over the COVID-19 virus, and policies around international travel are still in flux, the State Department recently expanded its recommendations that will limit travel for most J-1 international exchange visitors.

U.S. employers that sponsor J-1 exchange visitors should plan to adjust their training schedules and take other actions to comply with new guidelines for affected individuals. Employers who administer their own J-1 program, should pay close attention to upcoming program start and end dates in SEVIS so that appropriate revisions can be made to an exchange visitor’s status and new forms can be generated, as needed.

Since Feb. 7, the agency’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has recommended restricted travel to the U.S. for exchange visitors who had been in China within the previous 14 days and for those planning to travel back to China before April 1. As of March 6, however, the guidance was expanded to additional exchange visitors who are currently outside the U.S. and those already in the country.

For new exchange visitors who are currently outside the U.S., and who have traveled to China or a country affected by COVID-19 in the past 14 days, sponsors should delay their start date until at least April 1 or later. Sponsors should also issue them a new initial certificate of eligibility (Form DS-2019), which allows them to request an interview at a U.S. consulate abroad. If the exchange visitor has already secured a J-1 visa stamp, the sponsor should issue an amended Form DS-2019 with a start date after April 1. Sponsors should delay the start date of new exchange visitors until they have been outside of the affected country (and are not exhibiting symptoms of the COVID-19 virus) for at least two weeks.

Current exchange visitors who are outside the U.S. may have their records kept in SEVIS until they are able to return to the U.S. and continue with their original program objectives. However, depending on the validity dates of their J-1 visa, they may need to renew their visa before they are able to return to the U.S. If an exchange visitor requests withdrawal, the sponsor may shorten their SEVIS records accordingly.

Employer sponsors should also take action to extend the programs of exchange visitors who are currently in the U.S., but this may require more attention to compliance. According to the State Department guidance, sponsors should reinstate (if necessary) and extend the program for current exchange visitors with a new end date of April 1, 2020. Extensions, however, require that the exchange visitor’s activities remain consistent with the original purpose of travel to the U.S. and should be documented in the extension. Program extensions must also be supported with funding by the exchange visitor, sponsor or other third parties.

It is important that J-1 exchange visitors do not overstay their authorized period of stay as indicated on their Form I-94 record by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Most exchange visitors are granted J-1 status as long as they remain in status as an exchange visitor, but this is not always the case, and border officials sometimes denote an expiration date on the I-94. The State Department has also said that it is aware that a significant number of exchange visitors who are currently in the U.S. have reached the maximum duration of their program and are not permitted to extend it. Exchange visitors facing these circumstances are encouraged to consider applying for special measures that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers for those in the U.S. seeking to extend or change their visa status in special humanitarian or extenuating circumstances. Exchange visitors who are subject to the two-year home residency requirement may also be eligible for such relief. As exchange visitors are permitted to remain in the U.S. for up to 30 days beyond their program end date, an extension or change of status should be filed before the 30-day grace period lapses.

Employers with exchange visitor programs should anticipate significant delays in start dates for new exchange visitors, including the need to reschedule visa interviews. Employers sponsoring current exchange visitors should move to extend their programs with appropriate documentation of funding and compliance with program requirements. Additionally, sponsors should review and assess I-94 expiration dates and determine whether their current exchange visitors will need to apply to USCIS to extend or change their visa status under special humanitarian measures.

Lucrecia Davis is Senior Counsel in the Houston office of Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP.

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