The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions and delays in numerous industries, supply-chains, and government programs. And immigration services are no different. Thousands of visa applicants and visa holders have dealt with delays and complications caused by rule and processing changes, both with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State, as well as with health and safety restrictions put in place by foreign governments. This article outlines some of the major issues visa holders and visa applicants are facing from the COVD-19 pandemic.
Backlogs in Immigrant Visas
The process for issuing immigrant visas has been seriously slowed and routine visa services have been suspended due to impacts from COVID-19, causing a backlog in the number of visa applicants waiting to be scheduled for an interview and receive their immigrant visa. For example, the total number of immigrant visas issued in July 2019 was 39,500, but only 4,400 in July 2020 — during the peak of the pandemic’s onset.
Though there were 40,000 immigrant visas issued in July 2021 (even more than were issued pre-pandemic July 2019), the U.S. Department of State and the National Visa Center (NVC) has been making a concerted effort to make up for lost time, inform the public on its progress, and avoid leaving unused visas under the statutory limit.
The Department of State maintains emergency and mission-critical visa services, despite suspending routine services, and is prioritizing visa applications and interviews for immediate relative family members of U.S. citizens, including intercountry adoptions, fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens, and certain Special Immigrant Visa applications. The Department’s capacity to process even these applicants is nonetheless dependent on the local and country-specific restrictions impacting U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad.
At the end of August 2021, nearly 517,000 immigrant visa applicants’ cases were documentarily complete at the NVC, making the applicants ready for an interview. Yet, the NVC has scheduled only 25,500 visa interviews for September 2021.
This backlog has carried forward into 2022 with the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. At the end of December 2021, nearly 466,000 immigrant visa applicants’ cases were documentarily complete at the NVC, making the applicants ready for an interview. Yet, the NVC has scheduled only 26,600 visa interviews for January 2022, leaving 439,373 eligible applicants waiting for their interview to be scheduled.
Backlogs in Non-Immigrant Visas
Like immigrant visas, the pandemic has caused serious delays and backlogs for the issuance of non-immigrant visas, which are being issued at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. In July 2019, there were a total of 810,000 non-immigrant visas, while the total for July 2020 fell to 58,000. July 2021’s total is an improvement from 2020, with 355,000 non-immigrant visas issued, but remains half of the pre-pandemic total for the month of July.
The backlogs for non-immigrant visas are also attributed to health and safety closures at U.S. Consulates and Embassies throughout the world, and related staffing concerns. Given these realities, the Department of State has prioritized the processing of certain non-immigrant visa applications over others, much like its approach to immigrant visa applications. Thus, the Department prioritizes travelers with urgent travel needs, foreign diplomats, and certain “mission critical categories of travelers,” including those coming to the U.S. to assist with its response to the pandemic. Finally, the Department is prioritizing students and exchange visitors on F-1, M-1, and J-1 visas, then individuals coming to the U.S. on temporary employment visas.
It is important to note that Consulates or Embassies that process both immigrant and non-immigrant visas will be prioritizing the processing of immigrant visas during this backlog, while still processing some non-immigrant visas. The Department of State has emphasized that full operations will resume at Consulates, Embassies, and other sites on a case-by-case basis, where local conditions and restrictions allow, including local and national lockdowns, travel restrictions, and quarantine restrictions, as well as the capacity of individual Embassies and Consulates to follow each of their own health and safety protocols while providing full operations.
The United States COVID-19 travel restrictions have changed over time throughout the pandemic. This section provides a review of the restrictions the U.S. has had in place, and those currently in place.
Restrictions Until November 2021
Along with numerous other countries throughout the world, the United States has adopted strict travel restrictions that prevent immigrant and non-immigrant travelers from certain countries from entering the United States. The travel restrictions imposed by the United States were first put in place in 2020, immediately after COVID-19 cases began spreading worldwide. Now, these restrictions apply to numerous countries, and in May, 2021, the U.S. expanded restrictions to non-immigrants from India.
Among the other countries affected by the restriction are China, Iran, Ireland, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the Schengen Area of Europe (including Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland).
Under these restrictions, individuals will not be permitted entry to the United States if they were physically present in any of these countries within the 14 days prior to their arrival to the United States. However, this bar to entry does not apply to individuals eligible for entry under a National Interest Exception (NIE) and does not apply to individuals who are:
- A citizen of the United States
- A non-citizen national of the United States
- A lawful permanent resident of the United States
- A noncitizen spouse of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident
- A noncitizen parent or legal guardian of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who is unmarried and under the age of 21;
- A noncitizen sibling of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, provided both are unmarried and under the age of 21;
- A noncitizen child, foster child, or ward of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, or who is a prospective adoptee seeking to enter the U.S. pursuant to the IR-4 or IH-4 classifications;
- A noncitizen travelling at the invitation of the United States government for the purpose of containing or mitigating the virus;
- C-1 (transit) or D-1 (air or sea crewmember) nonimmigrant visa holders, or any noncitizen otherwise travelling to the United States as air or sea crew;
- A noncitizen seeking entry into or transiting the United States under an A-1, A-2, C-2, C-3 visa (foreign government official or immediate family member of an official), or under a G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, NATO-1 through NATO-4, or NATO-6 visa;
- A noncitizen whose travel qualifies under section 11 of the United Nations Headquarters Agreement;
- A noncitizen who is a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces;
- A noncitizen whose entry to the United States serves U.S. law enforcement needs, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their respective designees based on a recommendation of the Attorney General or his designee;
- A noncitizen whose entry would be in the national interest, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their designee
Restrictions Until November 2021: National Interest Exception (NIE)
With the above travel restrictions in place, the United States Department of State has carved out exceptions to certain visa holders, including F-1 and M-1 student visa holders; J-1 student visa holders, and J-1 visa holders who are professors, scholars, or specialists, and J-1 physicians sponsored by the Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG). All of these visa holders are allowed to enter the United States under their visa, but cannot do so any earlier than 30 days from their program’s start date.
Along with these visa holders who qualify for a NIE, the dependents of these visa holders may also qualify for a NIE, allowing them to join their family member – the principal visa holder – in the United States.
Restrictions After November 2021: Testing and Vaccination Requirements
Starting on December 6th, 2021, the U.S. Department of State began requiring all air travelers coming into the United States to show proof of a negative viral test result taken within one day of their flight’s departure to the United States. This applies to all travelers over the age of two, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status, including U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and foreign nationals.
Air travelers who recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection may instead show proof of having recovered from the disease within 90 days of their departure to the U.S.
On November 8, 2021, an order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control began requiring all non-immigrant and non-citizen air travelers headed to the United States to be fully vaccinated prior to boarding a plan for the United States.
There are only a few select groups exempted from this requirement, including:
- Children under the age of 18;
- Individuals medically unable to receive the vaccine;
- Emergency travelers who do not have timely access to a vaccine;
- Those eligible for a humanitarian exemption, though this is rare.