This season invites us to reflect, express gratitude, and set new goals. Fresh off the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it appears the State Department (DOS) has done so. On November 28, 2023, DOS shared a press release discussing the agency’s visa operations achievements during FY 2023. The release demonstrates the impressive numbers achieved by the agency during this fiscal year and a roadmap for continued success.
The release provided statistics and achievements related to the agency’s near-record issuance of nonimmigrant visas across several categories from October 2022 through September 2023. Notably, the agency issued more than 10 million nonimmigrant visas, including 8 million business and tourist visitor visas, a six-year high of 600,000 student visas, a record-breaking 442,000 visas for temporary/seasonal workers, 365,000 airline and shipping crew members crucial to our nation’s supply chain, and 590,000 high-skilled and executive workers, many of whom are from critical industries like technology and healthcare.
AILA applauds DOS and its staff for their effort in achieving these successes. While it is a testament to the agency’s efforts to rebound from the closures and backlogs created by the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the success was and continues to be a result of thoughtful policies implemented by agency staff that streamline visa processing without compromising national security.
One of those policies is the interview waiver flexibilities set to expire on December 31, 2023. At the bottom of its release, DOS mentions this policy specifically and its positive impact on visa processing. In 2022, nearly half of all temporary visas were issued without an in-person interview. The result is not just streamlined processing of nonimmigrant visas but also increased availability for agency staff to handle other visa-related workloads.
Despite the clear positive outcomes, the Administration has still not announced its intent to continue the interview waivers, as it awaits concurrence from the Department of Homeland Security. On November 17, 2023, AILA and 65 coalition partners sent a letter to DHS and DOS leadership urging that this policy be extended beyond its December 31 expiration and highlighting the many positive impacts that it has had on visa wait times, the U.S. economy, and national security. Without the continued use of interview waiver authorities, it is unclear whether the excellent progress DOS has made can be sustained. In addition to the interview waiver flexibilities, the press release also mentions the agency’s upcoming stateside nonimmigrant visa renewal pilot as another policy initiative that will positively impact visa processing. AILA has advocated for a return to stateside renewals of nonimmigrant visas for several years, and we are excited to see its implementation.
According to Bloomberg Law, the pilot will begin in early 2024 and be limited to an initial cap of 20,000 H-1B principals. Those individuals will be able to renew their nonimmigrant visas from within the United States, thereby reducing uncertainty and allowing the agency to reduce wait times at its consular posts abroad. The agency is preparing a federal notice with full details to be released in December 2023. The admittedly small pilot is meant to test the operationality of the program. But its implementation and, hopefully, its expansion will result in greater efficiency for the agency’s services.
Finally, while AILA is grateful for these thoughtfully implemented and proposed policies, to truly eliminate the visa processing delays and backlogs Congress must act. AILA endorses the bipartisan Visa Processing Improvement Act introduced by Senators Klobuchar (D-MN) and Moran (R-KS), which, among other things, permanently codifies interview waiver flexibilities for certain nonimmigrant visa categories, creates a pilot for remote video interviews, and ensures agency accountability and transparency on efforts to streamline processes. Moreover, Congress must appropriate money so that DOS can permanently end their backlogs. These reforms would provide the agency with much-needed resources and bandwidth and reduce visa wait times and delays.
As we look ahead to a new year, AILA is grateful for the dedication and ingenuity demonstrated by DOS staff in reducing visa wait times and boosting the issuance of nonimmigrant and immigrant visas. The continued implementation of these proven and potential strategies will ensure the agency is able to maintain the progress and achievements of 2023 into the New Year.