Earlier this week, I left my most recent one-hour video call with business leaders at a company I represent. Their business is considered critical infrastructure, which according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), means that work in their sector is considered especially vital to the United States. An executive who is here in the U.S. with a recently approved U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) extension of stay for the next couple years has his visa expiring in a week, and he needs to continue traveling for business. I had to tell him that he can’t travel without that visa and can’t request a national interest exception (NIE) under the travel ban covering most European nations until he’s in his home country of France, and given the current state of consular backlogs, we can’t guarantee he’ll be able to re-enter the U.S. afterwards at all, and best-case scenario is that with urgent processing and NIE approval it will take him a couple months to come back.
This seems irrational, he is fully vaccinated, and he goes into the supermarkets here in the U.S. where there are no mask mandates and life feels like it’s back to normal. We all know that pleasure travelers come and go all the time from banned countries just by virtue of the fact that they have a relationship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Americans travel freely whether their travel is necessary or not.
The executive I mentioned will now be forced to utilize very limited consular resources to get what amounts to a change in date on the travel document he already has. USCIS has already approved him to remain here for another two years. What sense does it make to require him to get a new visa abroad, when we have already automatically extended the passport validity of American citizens and the green card expiration dates of permanent residents to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on DOS processing? Why not automatically extend existing visas for 24 months (if a person has a USCIS extension) due to the unprecedented pandemic backlogs at our consulates and Embassies? I’m sure travelers would be glad to pay the DS-160 fee if necessary to gain this automatic extension. This would enable consular officers to focus on issuing first-time visas to those with an urgent need, instead of clogging the system with what are in normal times routine renewals. Again, in the case of my executive client, USCIS has already approved him to be in the U.S. for the next couple years. He has already been fingerprinted and vetted for a visa before. Requiring him to travel to his home country just to get his visa expiration date extended for another two years doesn’t make any sense from a health science point of view, nor an operational point of view.
The reality is that the Department of State has a lot of things on its To Do list. On June 29, AILA issued a Policy Brief on Reopening America, with some suggestions to reduce delays, eliminate backlogs and inefficiencies to create a more welcoming America. The Policy Brief suggested extending visas 24 months as a temporary COVID-19 related measure to ease the burden placed on consulates during unprecedented backlogs, which given my client’s example, is eminently reasonable. AILA also suggested, among other things, expanding interview waivers to make smart use of in-person interviews, instituting remote processing of visas to capitalize on worldwide government resources, and resuming the shuttered stateside visa renewal process to eliminate unnecessary travel to COVID-19 hotspots for those already within the U.S. who seek only to renew their visa.
Consular officers at our foreign posts are suffering, and the business community is suffering. We as immigration lawyers see the problem from both the government and industry perspectives because we serve as an intermediary between these interests. AILA’s commonsense suggestions promise to ease our collective suffering, helping with government overload and global business slowdown while protecting the integrity of our system.
Leaders in the Department of State have the tools necessary to ease critical backlogs and help American businesses; consular officers and American industry anxiously await these commonsense measures.
If you would like to take action and make your voice heard on this issue, please use our publicly available tool: https://www.aila.org/takeaction#/104