Even before the pandemic, the wait for a visa could take two years or longer. Consulates around the world used to issue about half a million visas per year, largely to the spouses and dependents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In most cases, immigrants have to wait in their home country for that entire time, remaining separated from spouses and children.
But in March, the pandemic led to the freezing of the entire visa process, particularly with the halting of in-person consular interviews. Then, in April, President Trump halted most legal immigration in the name of "protecting American jobs."
Of course, we've already reported that the Biden administration is lifting many of the immigration restrictions put in place by the Trump administration, but the damage is already done. The visa delay could set back the system for years. More than 380,000 visa applicants are waiting for consular interviews, according to a State Department official. Even in the best circumstances, it would take a year or longer to work through that backlog.
But in a pandemic? It could take even longer.
Why Visa Approvals Are Delayed
Consulates are running low on staff, so despite being ordered to process a small number of non-banned visa applications during the course of the pandemic, the issuance rate slowed down by about 66%. Advocates say this slowdown was partially a deliberate move by the Trump administration, but there are genuine challenges too.
For instance, consular interview rooms are sealed behind bulletproof glass. What makes the consular offices secure is also what makes them dangerous when there's an airborne virus spreading from person to person.
Thankfully, consulates are working to return to normal staffing as soon as local conditions permit, but that won't be enough. To work through the backlog, the Biden administration not only has to lift the visa ban, but it also has to figure out a way to process visas without risking public health. The fact is that many countries are still dealing with coronavirus outbreaks, and waiting for global vaccination to process visas will take far too long.
Staffing problems face another obstacle: attrition. The Foreign and Civil Service has lost nearly 5 percent of its workforce abroad over the last four years, which some former employees attribute to Trump's policies being out of line with staffers' morals. This has contributed to the visa slowdown.
The backlog has also been both a cause and effect of a budget crisis for the State Department. Consulates are funded by processing fees for visas of all types, with a total of $3.5 billion collected in normal years. The State Department warns that total losses from 2020 to 2022 could equal $1.4 billion—a third of a year's revenue. Even if emergency funding could generate new hires, the onboarding for new consular officers would mean the effect of the funding wouldn't be felt for months.
Former Congressman Bruce Morrison, a co-author of the 1990 immigration reform bill, calls it a "collapse of the system."
The solution to a problem of this scale must be multi-faceted. One potential solution is remote interviews. Another solution is waiving interviews altogether for certain categories where fraud is statistically unlikely, such as visa applicants over 65. Whatever solution presents itself, we're facing an unprecedented visa backlog. We'll need an unprecedented solution to address it.
If you're applying for a visa or any other immigration legal matter, speak with our immigration law firm at (800) 909-8129 for a confidential consultation.