“Thank You, Next”: What the State Department Needs to Do Since Travel Bans Are Being Rescinded

On September 20, 2021, the Biden Administration announced that at the beginning of November, it would finally be rescinding the COVID-19 regional travel bans covering 33 countries, including China, Iran, the Schengen Area, U.K., Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, and India and replacing them with science-based solutions such as a vaccine requirement, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing measures. Much is still unknown about the administration’s implementation of these new measures, but AILA welcomes this long-overdue news. AILA has been championing the use of science-based solutions instead of arbitrary blanket bans on entire countries or regions.

In combination with time-intensive adjudication of national interest exceptions and other complications created by the pandemic, these bans have sharply reduced issuance rates for both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas and left a massive number of documentarily complete cases languishing at the National Visa Center. The human impact has been palpable.

Families have remained separated, and U.S. businesses have been left without much-needed foreign talent necessary to recover from the pandemic’s economic impact.

These issues were front and center in our June 2021 policy brief, alongside concrete, doable recommendations for the administration and the State Department to overcome hurdles created by the pandemic, reduce delays, and eliminate the growing backlog. Rescinding the regional travel bans was a key component. But, let’s be clear: this is just one of many steps needed for the State Department to get back to business and successfully reopen America.

The U.S. government has a golden opportunity to build upon the technological-based solutions that U.S. agencies and businesses have leveraged for their workforces during this time.  The heightened use of telework technology, including video conferencing platforms, has been crucial to the continued operations of offices across the country and the globe. It is easier, more accepted, and in many cases safer to work remotely than to risk in-person contact, especially in regions of the world with high infection and/or below-average vaccination rates. With the State Department facing staffing shortages, a high volume of work, and in some cases dangerous in-country conditions, it is time to broadly adopt policies that will allow Department of State staff from across the globe to be mobilized to tackle the growing backlog.

What will those solutions look like? The agency should authorize virtual interviews for initial nonimmigrant visa applicants and allow for remote processing for cases that don’t present a fraud risk. In addition, DOS should look to its own history and dust off a policy that ended nearly two decades ago: stateside visa renewals. A convenient option for the agency and businesses alike, this process was suspended for most nonimmigrant visa categories in 2004 based in part on the agency’s inability to capture biometrics in the United States, a task now easily completed due to the increased use and availability of technology that can capture biometrics and its prevalence among executive agencies like CBP and USCIS. These measures would allow the State Department to make use of available staff and resources to temporarily redistribute work that cannot be done overseas right now and enable consular officers to chip away at the mountainous visa backlog that has accrued since March 2020.

Finally, while the State Department must look for ways to more efficiently handle its workload and address the immigrant visa backlog, it is also imperative that actions be taken to recapture visas left unused due to administrative and pandemic-related delays both during the COVID-19 pandemic and previously: the nearly 200,000 visas left unused between 1992 and 2019. In FY2020, over 100,000 family-based and diversity visas went unused. While we don’t have numbers yet for FY2021, predictions are that 150,000 family-based and about 85,000 employment-based visas will go unused even with a heightened pace of USCIS adjudications in recent weeks.

These numbers are staggering, and they mean that real people are waiting for what may already be decades for an available visa number. This is in addition to individuals fortunate enough to be selected as a part of the diversity visa lottery, a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that for many will not result in a visa due to delays created by the pandemic. Recapturing these visas will not only provide significant relief to these individuals, it will also be a massive boon to the U.S. economy. One calculation recently issued by the Niskanen Center projects that, depending on the category and number of visas, recapture could contribute more than one trillion dollars to US GDP over ten years. This is in addition to increased visa fees that will surely result from recapture. Efforts are underway in Congress to address this issue via the budget reconciliation process. AILA encourages everyone to join us and take action to urge Congress to address, among other issues, visa recapture during the reconciliation process.

The Department of State faces an uphill battle to overcome the significant delays and backlog created by the pandemic. By finally rescinding the COVID-19 related travel bans, the Biden Administration has addressed a considerable hurdle. Through additional efforts to use technology and creative solutions, the State Department can become more efficient and effective. And, given all the challenges we face, the last thing we should do is let unused visas evaporate into thin air. The agency, the Biden Administration, and members of Congress need to recapture those visas and do everything possible to help the State Department address these issues.

by Paul Stern