Consular Processed Immigrant Visas: Backlog of 380,000 Waiting to Immigrate

The suspension of most legal immigration processing outside of the U.S., combined with staffing shortages and logistical challenges related to the pandemic at U.S. consulates around the world, has left hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible visa applicants in limbo, and experts warn that the backlog could take years to resolve. A State Department official said in federal court in January that, as of December 31, 2020, more than 380,000 immigrant visa applicants were awaiting a consular interview. Those in the immigration community – advocates, lawyers, officials – fear that it would take up to a year under normal circumstances to work through that many applications and these are clearly not normal times. Moreover, the timing of when consular services abroad can resume normal operations depends on a number of local conditions, including the number of COVID-19 cases, emergency response capabilities, commercial flight availability, and local travel restrictions.

Normally, U.S. consulates issue about half a million immigrant visas per year, most of them to the spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. A smaller number of employment-based immigrant visas are processed abroad. During the pandemic, consulates were directed to process visas for the small subset of immigrants who were not banned — mainly the spouses and children of U.S. citizens — but they worked on only a small fraction of those visas, issuing only about third of eligible visas.

Advocates have accused the Trump Administration of having engineered a deliberate slowdown, and there is evidence that emergency resources were diverted away from visa processing. Even if resources were not diverted, consulates face a budget crisis. Consular operations are funded by fees collected to process visas — including tourism and other nonimmigrant visas — which total about $3.5 billion per year. As a result of the pandemic, State Department officials anticipate losses of about $1.4 billion in 2020 and continued losses through at least 2022.

When fully staffed, many consulates have one or two officers who adjudicate immigrant visas, generally enough to lag just a little behind demand, but nowhere near what will be needed to cut into the backlog while also keeping up with new applications. Even if Congress were to allocate emergency funding, a hiring surge would not be felt immediately: it takes about two years for new diplomats to pass the foreign service exam and complete the required training and security clearance.

To address the backlog, immigrant advocates are pushing for major changes to the visa adjudication process. First is to do away with the in-person interview, something other Western countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other European countries, have done. While in-person visa interviews are used to screen for fraud and security threats, these interviews are brief in most cases – only 10 minutes long – with the applicant separated from the consular official by bulletproof windows. Moreover, all security and fraud checks are completed in advance and do not rely on an in-person interview.

Before the pandemic, processing times were six to eight months once an immigrant visa petition was approved by USCIS and sent over to the State Department’s National Visa Center. Now, immigrants visa applicants should expect at least a year if not more.

The consular process has just about collapsed with no real relief in sight.


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