President Biden ended President Trump’s immigrant visa ban and allowed his nonimmigrant visa ban to expire on April 1. While this is progress, the president is inexplicably keeping 76 percent of consulates fully or partially closed to routine visa processing, affecting about 71 percent of all visa applicants. The consulate closures are acting as a de facto ban on legal immigration and travel, even though all travelers to the country must receive negative COVID-19 tests and more than 551 million doses of the vaccine have already been administered outside the United States.
In March 2020, the State Department closed consulates supposedly to create procedures to safely process visa applications in light of the pandemic. It has said since July 22, 2020, that it is phasing back in routine visa services, yet so far, it has moved exceptionally slowly. Moreover, the department fails to publish aggregate statistics on its progress and only makes available information on nonimmigrant (i.e. temporary) visa availability in an online search tool that only returns results for individual consulates. The statistics in this post came from repeated searches of that tool.
As of April 8, 2021, just 57 of 237 visa processing sites around the world (24 percent) were fully operational for nonimmigrant visa applicants, and just 97 (41 percent) allowed anything other than emergency applications (Table 1). Even many open sites have massive wait times for visas. The average wait was 95 days for a visitor or business traveler visa, but 31 percent of sites open for those visas had waits longer than 4 months, and 22 percent had waits longer than 6 months.
Of the 231 visa processing sites, only 136 ever process immigrant (i.e. permanent) visas (before the pandemic closures). Immigrant visas are mainly for immediate family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents and their spouses and minor children as well as diversity lottery winners and a few other smaller categories. The State Department does not publish any easily accessible public information on immigrant visa appointment availability by consulate. It did disclose in a sealed legal filing that as of January 8, 2021, barely 10 percent, or 14 sites, were processing immigrant visas. But about a quarter may be operational now based on the share of sites fully open for nonimmigrant visas that have immigrant visa processing.
Using figures for the month of April 2019, more than half a million (574,704) nonimmigrant visas are likely affected by the closures in April 2021, including 471,348 visitor and business traveler visas, 39,875 student and exchange visitor visas, and 63,481 visas for diplomats, workers, and others. The closures are affecting some of the largest U.S. consulates and embassies in the world, including Mexico City, Shanghai, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Guangzhou, Mumbai, and Buenos Aires. In addition, posts that were fully closed to non‐emergency nonimmigrant visa applicants processed 21,886 immigrant visas in April 2019, implying that perhaps a majority of all immigrant visas are also affected.
Even when the posts are open, they often will cancel appointments without notice purportedly to prioritize, in the State Department’s words, “travelers with urgent needs, foreign diplomats, mission‐critical categories of travelers (such as those coming to assist with the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and workers who are essential to the American food supply), followed by students, exchange visitors, and some temporary employment visas.”
The effect of the consulate closures on nonimmigrant visa processing can be seen in Figure 1, which compares visa categories partially subject to the nonimmigrant visa bans to those not subject at all. As it shows, visitor and tourist visas dropped steeper than the banned categories in every single month. While the other categories not subject to the ban did not fall as far as the banned or partially banned categories, Figure 1 shows that the banned categories had already fallen 90 percent before President Trump adopted the formal ban. Other dynamics explain almost the entire difference. Overall, nonimmigrant visa issuances were down 67 percent from February 2020 to February 2021 (the most recent month for which data are available).
For immigrant visas, a different story is playing out. Immigrant visa issuances for non‐banned categories have almost fully recovered, while banned categories remained down 92 percent from February 2020. The difference in processing stems from a decision by the State Department last year to deem processing for spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens to be the “highest priority” and meet the criteria for emergency processing, allowing them to bypass consulate closures. Biden revoked the immigrant visa ban on February 22, but no noticeable change in visa issuances occurred the final week of February for non‐banned categories.
One consequence of the consulate closures is that a backlog of 473,000 documentarily qualified family‐based immigrant visa applicants—more than the entire year of cases in 2019—has developed. Each month, tens of thousands of new applicants fall into this backlog. I have previously written about four ideas to address this backlog. I will add a fifth here: the Department of Homeland Security should grant parole to as many of these applicants as possible to allow them to enter the country, reunite with their families, and adjust to permanent residence here, avoiding consular processing entirely.
The consular closures were a major—perhaps even the biggest—component of the Trump administration’s 4‐year assault on legal immigration, which I document in more detail here. The Biden administration should immediately reopen the consulates. Every traveler already needs a negative COVID-19 test to travel, and many travelers will have received the vaccine. The State Department also has the authority to waive interviews for many travelers, making any contact with consular staff unnecessary. It can also conduct remote, virtual interviews.
Unfortunately, a quick return to visa processing seems unlikely. In January, the Biden administration renewed an entry ban on travel from Europe and Brazil and extended it to South Africa despite the fact that Trump rescinded it. The Biden State Department has implemented the ban in a harsher way than the text requires and even harsher than the Trump State Department did. Moreover, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that Americans can’t ever be fully safe from COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated so long as the virus is in other countries—an ominous belief for visa applicants. That said, CNBC reported that restrictions might be “relaxed” in “mid‐May,” but Biden’s promises on immigration aren’t worth much.