US embassies and consulates are currently prioritising several visa categories of students, exchange visitors, and temporary employment visas, which the State Department said as been necessary due to local lockdowns, travel restrictions and host country quarantine regulations stymying normal operations.
“Combined, these restrictions have reduced appointment capacity during the pandemic, which has created a significant backlog of both immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants awaiting a visa interview,” the Department said.
“The State Department is working to reduce this backlog while ensuring the safety of our staff and applicants and protecting our national security.”
Yet many of the countries experiencing these issues aren’t under lockdown, which has led to questions of what exactly is happening at the embassies.
Stakeholders have also been told J-1 visa interviews are not been offered because of the risk of staff contracting Covid-19, even though the US has rolled out a program to vaccinate all diplomatic staff.
In Georgia, several visa categories saw all their appointments cancelled for May, with a limited number of appointments available every Wednesday for J-1 visas beginning from May 12. This is despite a gradual loosening of restrictions over the past few months by the local government.
In Turkey (which is currently under lockdown), following the cancellation of all BridgeUSA summer work and travel visa appointments on April 9, stakeholders wrote to the embassy asking it to reverse the decision.
“Turkish students are deeply saddened at not being able to realise their dreams of experiencing America”
“Our Turkish students are deeply saddened at not being able to realise their dreams of experiencing America and making American friends for life,” they wrote.
“This second-year-in-a-row participation ban not only harmfully impacts the lives and future plans of thousands of Turkish students, but also threatens the existence of all international educational agencies in Turkey partnered with America’s BridgeUSA sponsors, and the BridgeUSA sponsor community itself.
“Without timely visa interview appointments, there is no way for Turkish students to safely arrive to begin their programs this coming summer.”
While some are hopeful that things will open up when the lockdown ends later this month, sponsors are planning to make use of the same methods as last year to offer options to students unable to travel.
“Sponsors are giving [the] right to students to transfer the program to the following year without paying any extra fees,” said Deniz Akar, managing director of Global Vizyon.
However, while this is an option for students in their first, second and third year of university, around 10% of students Global Vizyon deals with are already in their last year of university, meaning they will be ineligible next year.
“We are giving different options for them, such as internships in the US, or Canada and Ireland work and study programs”
“If they are last year, we are giving different options for them, such as internships in the US, or Canada and Ireland work and study programs, or to refund their fees.”
But, he added, the delays have still left many students disappointed – particularly as Turkish students had expected quicker policy changes following the inauguration of US president Joe Biden, he highlighted.
The Alliance for International Exchange has also urged Biden’s secretary of State Antony Blinken to address the situation in a letter signed by over 500 stakeholders.
They called for the government to take additional steps to facilitate the processing of visas to help protect exchange programs and the US employers who take part in them, noting that the BridgeUSA exchange community experienced $1.23 billion in financial fallout due to the pandemic last year.
The Alliance’s executive director Ilir Zherka said that while he recognised the “Secretary’s very strong support of these programs and applaud[ed] recent steps taken by the administration to enable them… those steps are not enough”.
“The Alliance and the signees are urging the department to take additional steps to process exchange visas, including waiving interviews for J-1 applicants, targeting resources at embassies where demand is high, and lifting travel restrictions in favour of proof of a negative Covid test or vaccination,” he added.
“Doing so will fulfil president’s Biden promise to follow the science when fighting to end the pandemic. It would also help protect embassy personnel while supporting the American employers that administer and rely on the exchange programs.”
Beyond J-1 visas, agents in countries where delays still persist are now also looking to what will happen with degree students at the start of the new academic year, especially as rules around in-person study requirements to obtain visas remain unclear.
“I still have a little bit hope [for] after May 17 [the end of the lockdown in Turkey], because for summer work and travel you will still have six weeks to go,” said Akar.
“Maybe at least a couple of hundred or thousand students will be accepted. Let’s see.”