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America Closed for Immigration: The Covid-19 Visa Backlog

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By Julia Alves e Louanni Cesário

The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively shut down immigration to the U.S. from abroad, since the Consular interview appointments are scarce or unenviable, causing immigrant visa and nonimmigrant visa issuances to meaningfully drop. 

  • Immigrant and nonimmigrant Visa Backlog 

The suspension of routine visa services and COVID-19 travel bans reduced immigrant visa issuances to a quarter of pre-pandemic levels. The immigrant visa backlog at the National Visa Center (NVC) has increased by 800% during the pandemic, putting more than 481.965 immigrants on hold to schedule for an interview. Worldwide, only 22,576 immigrant visa interviews were scheduled for May 2021.  

The nonimmigrant visa backlog is equally overwhelming during the pandemic: an average of fewer than 126,000 nonimmigrant visas were issued each month, much lower than the average of over 721,000 nonimmigrant visas that were normally issued each month worldwide. 

  • Visa Prioritization 

 All consular posts are providing emergency and mission-critical visa services. However, full operations will resume on a post-by-post basis, based on how COVID-19 behaves. Immigrant visas are prioritized over nonimmigrant visas and, generally, family-based applications are prioritized over employment-based applications. 

 The State Department recently divided the immigrant visa categories into four tiers of priority: 

  1. Adoption visas, age-out cases, and certain special immigrant visas for Afghan and  Iraqi nationals working for the U.S. government; 
  2. Immediate relative, fiancé(e), and returning resident visas; 
  3. Family preference and special immigrant visas for certain employees of the U.S. government abroad; 
  4. All other immigrant visas, including employment-based and diversity visa petitions. 

As far as nonimmigrant visas, applicants with urgent needs, foreign diplomats, and missioncritical categories of travelers will be prioritized, followed by students, exchange visitors, and some temporary employment visa applicants.  

The Secretary of State made a national interest determination regarding categories of travelers eligible for exceptions under Presidential Proclamations related to the spread of COVID-19. As a result of this determination, travelers subject to these proclamations due to their presence in China, Iran, India, Brazil, South Africa, the Schengen area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland: 

  • who are seeking to provide vital support or executive direction for critical infrastructure; 
  • those traveling to provide vital support or executive direction for significant economic activity in the United States; 
  • journalists; 
  • students and certain academics covered by exchange visitor programs; 
  • immigrants; 
  • and fiancés may now qualify for a National Interest Exception (NIE). 

These qualified travelers who are applying for or have valid visas or ESTA authorization may travel to the United States following the procedures, even as PPs 9984, 9992, 10143, and 10199 remain in effect.

In order to fully reopen the United States to immigrants, AILA suggests that the Biden Administration must expand the interview waiver and visa waiver options or provide another alternative to speed up visa issuances abroad. Only then will the U.S. effectively clear the visa backlog, allowing families to be reunited, businesses to grow, and our shared prosperity to increase, helping the U.S. and the world build back post-pandemic. 

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