As U.S. immigrant and nonimmigrant visa issuance bans imposed by the Trump administration have lapsed and U.S. consulates abroad have restarted routine visa appointments, most applicants for popular work visas, such as H-1B and L-1, and their U.S. employers do not realize that the current visa backlog includes nearly half a million applicants who meet visa issuance requirements and are ready for interviews. Backlogs in some immigrant-visa categories are 50 to 100 times higher than they were 4 years ago. Some of the backlogs are due to visa issuance restrictions that were in place due to the ongoing pandemic, but many have resulted from pre-pandemic Trump administration anti-immigration policies that have not yet been reversed by the current presidential administration.
For security reasons, visa applications cannot be processed remotely and visa issuance often involves not only secure passport and visa processing at consular offices, but in-person interviews of visa applicants as well. With consular offices reopening, the issue of bringing applicants to the consulates in person remains problematic during the still ongoing pandemic, social distancing requirements, and resulting limitations on the number of people coming to the consular offices. As of January 2021, at least 1/3 of U.S. consulates around the world had not been scheduling interviews.
The situation is even more dire with family-based immigrant visas, which are issued to individuals joining relatives who reside in the US. As of February 2017, there was a backlog of approximately 2,300 family-preference visa applications. Between 2017 and 2020, the backlog kept increasing and was at nearly 27,000 as of February 2020. After the pandemic-related visa issuance restrictions were implemented and consular closures ensued, the backlog increased to approximately 285,000 by February 2021. The following set of numbers serves to illustrate the current highly frustrating reality: during January 2020, the U.S. consulates worldwide scheduled 22,856 visa interviews for family-based visa applicants; in January 2021, this number was only 262, which reflects an almost 99% reduction in number of immigrant visas issued.
As a “catch 22,” since the Bureau of Consular Affairs relies, primarily, on visa and passport fees for its funding, the DOS admitted that the significant reduction in fee revenue from the pandemic “will have continuing effects on our staffing and available resources for several years, which means even when post-specific conditions improve, many posts will not be able to immediately return to pre-pandemic workload levels.” The most likely (and, possibly, only) solution to this problem is in the hands of the U.S. Congress. Specifically, the DOS is in need of a significant budgetary increase to mitigate the effects of the hiring freeze imposed by the Trump administration on consular offices last Fall, and would need to hire a number of consular officers to improve visa application and processing timelines. Keeping in mind that new Foreign Service officers would have to be trained and the shortage of officers that are fluent in local languages has historically been a challenge, we are looking at a continuous period of egregious visa issuance delays.
On a practical note, when dealing with consular visa appointments unavailability or their availability in the distant future, it is advisable to discuss options for you or your employee or relative with an immigration legal counsel. In many instances, registering for the earliest available appointment and working to reschedule it for an earlier time, or considering consular office change to a less busy jurisdiction with better appointments availability, is well worth it, but this planning must occur on a case-by-case basis.