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Fixing the Visa Backlog Should Be Part of Building Back Better

Dec. 6, 2021, 9:00 AM

As of July, the Department of State’s visa backlog sat at around 2.6 million, and it’s growing. While temporary visitors from Canada and a handful of mostly European countries do not need visas to come to the U.S., everyone else does.

Yet when foreign travelers needing visas go to the department’s website to check the wait time for a visa interview appointment at their local U.S. consulate, they often find the message “emergency appointments only,” or “999 days.”

The Omicron variant prompted President Biden to impose new restrictions on travelers from southern Africa, but there is at this point no appetite for a return to the sweeping travel restrictions and lockdowns of the high pandemic. Inbound travel is still set to increase in the coming months.

The ability to obtain a visa without delay for those who wish to study, visit, or legally work will be key to reviving the post-pandemic U.S. economy. International students alone are estimated to have contributed $44 billion to the economy the year before the pandemic struck. The pandemic-related travel bans are estimated to have cost $300 billion.

Universities are eager to welcome back foreign students and our businesses continue to need foreign talent. But right now, the visa backlog is standing in the way of Biden’s pledge to “restore faith in our legal immigration system” and make foreign policy work for our economy.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs—an agency few outside the Beltway have even heard of—sits at the center of both the problem and the solution. It oversees the visa-related work of more than 230 embassies and consulates abroad. In the year before the pandemic, the bureau helped issue about 12 million U.S. visas.

The State Department recently announced that it will be focusing on reducing wait times, but given hiring trends and the bureau’s limited surge capacity, this will be difficult to achieve anytime soon.

Damage From the Previous Administration

Consular affairs, which is funded primarily by visa fees, is still reeling financially from the pandemic—one estimate puts the bureau’s losses at $4 billion. Reserves will build back up eventually, but the lack of funds will affect consular officer hiring and training in the short term.

The bureau’s funding crisis comes on the heels of the Trump administration, which sunk the morale of many consular officers. But as tempting as it is to blame the previous administration and Covid-19 for the bureau’s woes, many of the issues aren’t new.

Consular officers’ working conditions are not well known. Few are aware that the visa adjudication speed standard is 20 visa interviews per hour, or 120 per day. Officers, particularly at busy posts, face enormous pressure to “clear the waiting room” as quickly as possible.

Although it might seem like good customer service to empty a waiting room fast, the emphasis on speed has unmeasured costs in terms of fairness, the rule of law, and national security.

Possible Solutions

The bureau is facing pressure to move visa decisions to a virtual interview model to deal with the visa backlog. That will help, but it would be short-sighted to use the time savings to just cram more visas into the officer’s workday.

Instead, virtual interviews should be one prong of a new approach which integrates two other forward-leaning concepts: the identification of trusted travelers, and a move to the paperless visa.

The Trusted Traveler Model

The trusted traveler model embraced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in which travelers are admitted to a program such as Global Entry based on a background check and an interview, has reduced waiting time for such travelers when they arrive at U.S. ports of entry by 70%.

Puzzlingly, consular affairs has rejected this model. The interview waiver program does allow certain visa seekers who need to renew their visas to skip the personal interview at the consulate, but the traveler must be applying for the same kind of visa he got originally, and he must apply to the same consulate.

The bureau could instead adopt a whole-of-applicant approach to the initial visa interview and determine trusted traveler status at that point. For subsequent visas, if there is no new derogatory information, the applicant could skip the personal interview even if he or she is seeking a visa in a different category or applying at a different consulate. In this way, the benefit would follow the traveler rather than being tied to his or her first visa.

The trusted traveler model and virtual interviews could save consular staff countless hours and allow them to focus on the more difficult visa cases.

Go Paperless

The State Department’s attachment to the paper visa is equally strange. Getting rid of the visa sticker would not just save money, but speed traveler admission to the country. Fingerprints and facial recognition are pretty good at confirming identity, and the visa could be pulled up on screen by the airline agent or immigration officer. All-digital records also reduce opportunities for counterfeiting visas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it would accept a “digital photograph” of a Covid-19 vaccination certificate as an acceptable form of vaccination proof for inbound travelers. It seems the CDC is showing the State Department how to finally go paperless.

Sadly, visa issues were noticeably absent from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s recent multi-point plan to modernize the department. This was a lost opportunity for President Biden to make foreign policy work for American prosperity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs,Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Aaron Karnell is a senior attorney at Erickson Immigration Group. He was a Department of State Consular Officer for 11 years. His Foreign Service postings included Tanzania, Botswana, Mexico, and the U.K.