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Immigration Planning for Times of Disaster!

January 2008
Immigration Planning for Times of Disaster!

One simple action you can take is to make sure you have a copy of all key immigration documents accessible at a remote location in case of a disaster.

Unfortunately, this article won’t give you tips for dealing with disastrously bad Congressional bills, but we do want to make sure your status is protected during times of natural disasters! That may seem like a strange issue, but with wildfires in California, hurricanes in Louisiana, and a host of other disasters that seem to increase with each passing year, our firm has increasingly been seeing the effects times of crises can have on our clients in those affected areas.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, firms were counseling immigrants on how to maintain their legal status. Jobs were lost, documents destroyed, government offices closed and people were relocated to metro areas far from home. USCIS, the State Department and the Department of Labor did a good job helping people affected, but the lesson many took away from the storms was that it is important to do advance planning for disasters and emergencies and be prepared to also act quickly.

After the Southern California fires of October, The New York Times interviewed Raj Panandian, a 26-year-old software engineer. “I saw a live video of our apartment complex burning,” he told the paper. Along with several of his neighbors, he left the complex at 4 a.m. after receiving a telephone call from San Diego County Fire Department officials. “I had just settled down there six months ago,” added Panandian, an Indian citizen. “I had bought furniture, and everything. The only thing I managed to save was my passport and my H-1 work visa. I think everything else is gone.”

One simple action you can take is to make sure you have a copy of all key immigration documents accessible at a remote location in case of a disaster. Consider scanning your documents and storing them electronically off site as well. Not only will you need documents like your I-94 and passport to prove your legal status, but you’ll also need copies of filings with government agencies in case the government office with your file is closed temporarily or destroyed. Also, following Panandian's lead is helpful. Have your original documents in a place you can quickly find and be sure you take them with you when you evacuate. If you are displaced and forced to move, alert USCIS to your address change.

If you are displaced and forced to move, alert USCIS to your address change. You can download Form AR-11 at The American Immigration Lawyers Association and NAFSA, the organization for foreign student advisers, will often have the latest and most detailed information on special procedures and announcements relating to the disaster. In a large disaster, USCIS may relax visa rules so people who lost their jobs or are no longer enrolled in school will not face severe immigration violations. But you should not count on this, particularly if an emergency only affects you or a disaster is small, and you may want to plan on quickly filing for a change to visitor status while you sort things out. I-539 visitor status petitions can be submitted online. You are technically required to file for a change to visitor status while you remain in valid status in another category, but there is a provision in the regulations allowing for late filings when there are extraordinary circumstances. Be sure to present a copy of a police or fire report or a FEMA or insurance adjuster document proving you were affected by the disaster or emergency. Be sure to file for replacement documents quickly if an original document was lost. The I-90 form to replace a green card can be filed online. You can also download Form I-102 to replace an I-94 at the USCIS web site. Above all else, be prepared!

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