The Biden administration has lifted some restrictions on vaccinated travelers and reopened its land borders, but limited operations at U.S. consulates abroad continue to keep visa holders stuck in the United States — wary that if they leave, they won’t be let back in.
Limited appointment availability in major cities across the globe, particularly in India, prevents foreign professionals and students with valid statuses but expired visa stamps from renewing their visas abroad and returning from short trips to their lives in the U.S.
While foreign citizens may renew their employment authorization from within the U.S. — and many did last year during the pandemic — they must leave the country to renew the visas themselves, which allow them to enter the U.S. from abroad.
“People have been afraid to travel because they know that if they leave, and they don't have a current visa, that they could be stuck for months on end, almost indefinitely, without being able to get back into the U.S.,” said immigration lawyer Greg Siskind, a board member for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “I'm still advising people: Don’t travel, unless you’re prepared to be working remotely for a year.”
The State Department suspended most routine visa services in 2020 as COVID-19 first spread across the globe. More than a year later, while immigration lawyers say the situation has greatly improved, the consulates have yet to run at full operational capacity.
Although many employers moved their operations remotely, the department has resisted calls to conduct visa interviews over video teleconferencing.
Meanwhile, the pause in routine visa services created a crushing backlog: According to a recent State Department report, by the end of this year, more than 450,000 people eligible for immigrant visas will be waiting to have their interviews scheduled.
A State Department official said Monday the COVID-19 pandemic “resulted in profound reductions in the Department’s visa processing capacity.”
Approximately 90 percent of embassies and consulates are still subject to pandemic-related restrictions, and “many continue to face staffing challenges that began during the pandemic,” according to the official.
Appointment availability varies greatly by country, leaving some foreign citizens in better positions to travel than others based on local conditions.
At consulates in London, Paris and Mexico City, for instance, applicants must wait about two months for a nonimmigrant visa appointment. In Toronto, the wait for such an appointment is more than a year, according to the State Department website.
And in India, which saw travel restrictions lifted in November, visa appointments are available on an emergency-only basis at the consulates in Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata, preventing many of the thousands of Indian citizens working or studying legally in the U.S. from visiting relatives for the holidays or other significant events.
Visa holders in the U.S. wary of leaving the country can’t always invite their families to visit them either. Wait times for visitor visas, which allow foreign citizens to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business, are generally longer. In Mexico City, the wait for a nonimmigrant visa appointment is 57 days — but the wait for a visitor visa appointment is more than 600.
Some visa applicants may be able to get an expedited appointment, but those circumstances are limited. A foreign-born doctor helping COVID-19 patients may be granted an expedited appointment to return to the U.S. after traveling abroad, but a foreign citizen who works at a U.S. tech company and could work remotely would likely be denied, lawyers said.
“It doesn't matter how critical your reason was to leave. It’s how important it is that you go back that a consular officer actually looks at,” said Loren Locke, a former consular officer. “‘I wanted to go home, and now I want to go back to my job.’ That's not an emergency.”
The State Department has offered some relief to Indian citizens facing no appointment availability by allowing those whose visa stamps expired in the last 48 months to renew by mail, sparing them an interview requirement.
However, this flexibility may soon be ending. Previously, only people whose nonimmigrant visas expired in the past 12 months can renew by mail, and the 48-month expansion is set to expire on Dec. 31.
Cyrus Mehta, a New York-based immigration lawyer, had hoped the department would extend the renewal-by-mail flexibility.
“It’s less burdensome on the consulates and it's more convenient for applicants who need to travel, and then they don’t have to get stuck,” he said. “Because people need to travel for all kinds of reasons, and there are emergencies with parents and other family members contracting COVID.”
The State Department official said the department is “working to resume routine visa services on a location-by-location basis, in accordance with public health data and local conditions.”
The department is also “committed to lowering those wait times as quickly and safely as possible, recognizing that visas for work and tourism play a critical role in the U.S. economy,” the official said.
Fear and uncertainty
Immigration lawyers describe an atmosphere of uncertainty for work visa holders hoping to travel. Their clients fear getting stuck abroad if the U.S. announces a new travel ban — an increasing risk as the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads across the globe.
“The problem is the uncertainty. You don't know what's going to happen because everything gets canceled on short notice,” said David Strashnoy, a former consular officer who now is an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles.
“The consulate doesn't promise you anything. They don't promise you a result,” he said. “It’s not unreasonable for people to draw the conclusion that it's better to just stay put rather than leave and deal with the uncertainty of getting back.”
Lawyers called on the State Department to permit more remote work, as many businesses have done over the past two years in response to the pandemic. That would allow video interviews to help curb international travel.
But they also recognized the challenge before the department, which oversees a sprawling network of consulates and embassies across the globe, each with its unique local conditions and restrictions.
“It's hard to fault them for just trying to keep their people safe. It's just really unfortunate that the consequence of that, in terms of the U.S. visa process, is essentially just debilitating,” said Strashnoy.
The State Department “will continue investigating ways to creatively reduce wait times,” such as by waiving interview requirements in certain instances, the official said. But the person said federal regulations require applicants to appear for interviews in-person, not over video.
Siskind blamed “poor leadership” for the department’s operational hurdles, noting a number of businesses that handle sensitive data have managed to move online during the pandemic.
“They cannot use security and COVID as an excuse forever not to do their work,” he said.