As the US immigration system recovers from the pandemic, the return to normal has been particularly slow for companies whose workers and executives are on temporary visas, with no quick fix in sight.
Extreme wait times at embassies and consular offices mean these workers face a stark choice if their visas have expired: delay their return home or potentially find themselves stuck in their home countries for months before able to return to the United States. This is because workers whose visas have expired can only renew them at consular offices outside the United States.
These wait times have also created disruption for companies whose workers cannot return to the United States after traveling abroad, and thwarted plans for companies to bring in key employees or executives. the country.
“Our biggest customers want to meet with us before doing business with us. If you’re building a large-scale business in the United States, you need to get some kind of buy-in from people,” said Nilesh Patel, founder and CEO of software services firm LeadSquared, which plans to expand its presence. the company of 1,400 people. in the United States by moving from its headquarters to Bangalore, India. “That buy-in can’t happen if the CEO isn’t there.”
After getting approval for an L-1 visa for intra-company transfers in March, he waited more than five months for the visa appointment he needs for the passport stamp to travel to the United States. United. The wait time for the appointment is also delaying plans to expand the company’s U.S. presence, Patel said.
Visa wait times at embassies and consulates have reached unprecedented levels, creating disruption for businesses and employees seeking to enter the United States or visit family in their home countries . In Istanbul, waiting times for visa appointments, excluding student and visitor visas, exceed 16 months. In New Delhi and Chennai, applicants can expect wait times of nine months.
State Department leaders say they have made substantial progress in issuing visas, especially for students and temporary workers. But wait times for other visa categories have lengthened for months in many countries, including places like India that are the source of thousands of highly skilled temporary workers in the United States.
Short-staffed embassies and consular offices have contributed to extreme wait times as well as pent-up travel demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Trump administration halted processing of guest worker visas for two years, citing the economic effect of the pandemic on American workers. During this period, thousands of highly skilled workers on H-1B visas or other highly skilled visas whose visas had expired were unable to travel to their home countries to renew them.
The requirement for temporary visa holders is quite simple: they must obtain a stamp in their passport in order to travel abroad, including to the United States. Manish Jain, a software developer in Seattle, has not been able to visit his parents or extended family outside of Bangalore, India, since 2019 due to the scarcity of visa appointment times in the country.
“As soon as I leave the country, to come back, I need that stamp,” he said. “In the pre-Covid era, it was really simple. We never thought about dates.
While Indian consular offices don’t have the longest wait times – Chile’s business and tourist visas could take nearly three years – delays there potentially have the biggest effect on employers. in the United States, as the country is a hub for workers in the top-qualified H-1B and L-1 visas, reserved for intra-corporate transferees, said David Bier, associate director of studies on immigration at the Cato Institute.
Long wait times have persisted this year, despite State Department measures such as interview waivers for visa holders who have previously traveled to the United States, he said.
“Why is it taking so long? It’s really not clear,” he said. “Maintenance is a labor-intensive thing, but in this case, we’ve already waived that, so it should be a fairly straightforward process.
Employers hearing ‘horror stories’ of temporary visa holders stranded overseas have advised employees not to travel until wait times drop or the State Department begins processing applications. visa renewals in the United States, said Leon Fresco, attorney at Holland & Knight.
“They just don’t believe that even if they can get an appointment it will be honored,” he said.
Some workers in urgent need of returning to the United States have traveled to consular offices in third countries such as the United Kingdom to obtain visas, but this option depends on the capacity of these countries. Even in this era of remote work, companies face major headaches if employees cannot return to the United States due to visa wait times. Time zone differences, for example, mean colleagues can’t collaborate effectively and many jobs – in healthcare, lab research or engineering – can’t be done remotely at all, said Fresco.
Delays for workers entering the United States impact costs for businesses as well as their reputation with customers, said Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“While there are certainly things out of a company’s hands, your customers don’t want to hear that when they rely on your company for products or services,” he said.
Recovery faster than expected
While employers’ and workers’ frustrations are understandable, uneven progress is being made to reduce wait times at consular offices, said Julie Stufft, deputy assistant secretary for visa services in the Department of Consular Affairs’ Bureau of Consular Affairs. ‘State.
“We are actually recovering faster than expected and faster than the industry expected on visa decisions after an almost complete shutdown of overseas visa operations during the pandemic,” she said in a statement. interview last week.
The Department of State recommends that visa holders not travel abroad without an appointment for a new passport stamp. But Stufft said it was already clear that interview waivers had reduced wait times at embassies and consulates around the world. The agency also expects further progress through increased staffing, she said.
“This year, we doubled the number of consular officers we sent abroad compared to last year. India will definitely benefit from this,” Stufft said.
United States Visa Renewals
Business groups and immigration lawyers say a simple solution is available to most applicants whose visas have expired: allow them to renew their visa stamps in the United States without traveling abroad. . Stufft said the state is actively pursuing this option, but it requires “setting up an operation from scratch, which takes a bit of time.”
Allowing visa holders without criminal convictions or other problems to renew their visas would solve most, if not all, of the backlog problems at embassies and consulates, Fresco of Holland & Knight said.
“Institutional inertia has been the main problem,” he said. “They actually need to put their money where their mouth is and move on.”
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