Large numbers of US consulates around the world have not been processing visas, leading to concerns from stakeholders that international students won’t be able to reach campuses for the fall 2021 semester.
“Honestly, we would like to be able to offer visa interviews sooner”
Now, a US Department of State official has said that, while consular services are offering as many appointments as they can, there are “large visa backlogs” and they do not expect to resume full operating capacity any time soon.
Speaking at a session that focused on the visa application process, Mike Hollabaugh, international student advisor at Boston College Office of International Students and Scholars highlighted some of the challenges that students have been facing.
“We know this is happening on a post by post basis, but students and scholars are still experiencing difficulty getting appointments, especially the discontinuation of visa services in China, which thankfully is somewhat resuming in Beijing now,” he said.
“That is one of the top sending countries, obviously, for students and scholars to the US and that situation has been pretty devastating to students and also schools and programs.”
Kathryn Strong, visa policy analyst for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Department of State, acknowledged the impact that visa processing delays have had on students and academics.
“We understand all of the frustrations and hardships that you guys are experiencing, the petitioners, the applicants,” she said.
“Everyone’s having to wait longer than they would like to for a visa interview. Honestly, we would like to be able to offer visa interviews sooner.
“We are working as hard as our resources and local conditions allow to adjudicate visa applications as quickly as possible. It’s our job, it’s also the right thing to do.”
Strong noted that president Biden has directed the Department of State to resume visa processing services, particularly with executive order 14012.
“That one is the one on restoring faith in our legal immigration systems. It’s a priority,” she added.
However, Strong explained that consulates take their obligation to protect the health and safety of personnel and customers entering consular sections in the midst of the pandemic, ”extremely seriously”.
“Even if conditions have improved in the US, they’ve obviously continued to worsen in some parts of the world,” Strong said.
“And when we have restrictions, we’re not only thinking about the Americans and local nationals working there. We’re also thinking about the applicants waiting in crowded waiting rooms to speak to an American. We have to make sure we’re keeping them safe too.”
Under current rules, US embassies and consulates that process nonimmigrant visa applications are prioritising travellers with urgent needs, foreign diplomats, mission-critical categories of travelers (such as those coming to assist with the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and workers who are essential to the American food supply).
“Even as we do make gains against the pandemic, our sections have large visa backlogs”
This is followed by students, exchange visitors, and some temporary employment visas. However, despite students being prioritised, Strong said that they are still likely to be affected by issues with capacity.
“We’re offering as many appointments as we can. That said, even as we do make gains against the pandemic, our sections have large visa backlogs, as you know, different locations, local conditions and strained resources,” she said.
“We don’t expect to quickly resume full operating capacity. So what we would urge students to do is to maintain close contact and early contact with their local embassy or consulate and try and apply as soon as possible.
“They can also always contact the embassy or consulate to see about expediting their appointments.”
Another issue discussed during the session is whether students are able to access consular services in different countries. Strong advised that applicants should schedule an appointment for their non-immigrant visa interview at the embassy or consulate in the country where they live.
“Those officers are just best equipped to interview with all of the depth of knowledge and language skills, applicants who live there,” she said.
“But they may also schedule an interview at another US embassy or consulate that is currently accepting third country national applicants.”
However she warned that it may be more difficult for applicants to qualify for a visa outside of the country where they live.
Sarah Spreitzer, director, government relations at the American Council on Education, told The PIE News that the organisation is continuing to monitor the situation around visa processing closely and the impacts on international students – especially as many of their campuses are working to fully reopen in the fall.
“We urge the State Department to continue to prioritise student visas and allow for flexibilities in the visa process for our international students,” she said.