Sen. Alex Padilla, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, and nearly two dozen other Democratic senators called on the State Department on Friday to speed up processing of student visas ahead of the start of the school year.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senators urged the department to increase staffing, maximize use of virtual interviews and provide more flexibility in an effort to work through a backlog of student visa requests and ensure international students are able to attend American universities this academic year.
“We are at a critical point in the academic calendar when international students and scholars must make visa appointments and plan their travel to the United States,” Padilla, D-Calif., wrote alongside 23 other senators, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Although U.S. consulates are reopening from pandemic-era closures, they are still operating at partial capacity, and visa appointments are limited, the senators noted.
The State Department’s website shows current wait times spanning months for student visa appointments in some locations, if they are offered at all. A student seeking a student or exchange visa in Manila, Philippines, for example, has a wait time of 125 days, while in London and New Delhi, only emergency appointments are currently available.
The wait times appear to vary significantly by location. In Mexico City and Beijing, wait times for student and exchange visas are less than a week, according to the State Department website.
A State Department spokesperson didn’t immediately return a request for comment Friday on student visa processing times globally.
“Prospective students cannot be certain about whether their visas will be processed in time for them to travel to the United States to begin their studies,” the senators continued.
Many students may also struggle to complete their coursework online from abroad, including those living within different time zones or in countries with restricted access to the internet, the letter says.
Citing data showing international students — who typically pay full tuition — contribute tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy, the Democrats also indicated the U.S. could lose these students to other competitor countries that “have issued clear guidance for international students” despite pandemic-related challenges.
The lawmakers added they would “welcome a dialogue on how Congress can be helpful in clearing the backlog of student visas.”
The Biden administration has exempted student visa holders traveling to the United States from existing COVID19 travel restrictions against certain nations, which includes much of Europe, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Iran.
However, attorneys have said many international students will face hurdles beyond consular delays coming to the U.S. for in-person classes in the fall, ranging from vaccine requirements for those from countries without vaccine availability to local pandemic restrictions limiting movement in their home countries.
According to a survey by the Institute of International Education, new enrollments of international students fell 43 percent in the fall of 2020 because of the pandemic and related restrictions.
Caroline Simon contributed to this report.