U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced the Visa Processing Improvement Act on July 27, a bipartisan bill aimed at addressing ongoing delays that keep some waiting for interviews for more than two years.
In a November 2022 media release, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs attributed the long wait times to pandemic-era restrictions that prevented embassies and consulates from interviewing visa applicants in person. The backlog from those delays, combined with regular seasonal demand, has led to these extended wait times, the department said.
Despite the department’s efforts to curb wait times, the average wait time for visitor visas has increased by a month since November, prompting lawmakers to intervene.
“Continued delays in visa processing negatively impact businesses, universities and families in Kansas and our country,” Moran wrote in a press release. “This simple, common-sense bill will hold the State Department accountable for the current long wait times required to obtain a visitor visa and improve the visa processing system for certain applicants.”
Klobuchar expressed confidence that the Visa Processing Improvement Act will support these efforts and reduce wait times worldwide.
“Our bill will help address the backlog and get people flying faster by increasing staffing and improving service at U.S. consulates and embassies, bringing more international travelers to attractions, restaurants and hotels in Minnesota and across the country Klobuchar said.
As written, the legislation would require the State Department to set goals for interview wait times and direct resources to embassies and consulates that fail to meet those goals. It would also allow the department to waive in-person interviews and pilot video conferences for prescreened and “low-risk” applicants.
Such applicants are considered “low risk” because they are applying for nonimmigrant visas, such as tourism, school, or temporary work; you are a citizen of a country with a visa waiver program; you have previously held a visa and traveled to the United States; have provided biometric data and complied with the law before.
“By modernizing the system while maintaining our national security, we can strengthen the economy without compromising our safety,” Moran said.
The bill would also offer applicants an expedited processing fee and the ability to extend visitor visas while in the U.S.
The department’s media release states that they are already addressing some of these practices.
“We have significantly reduced wait times at many embassies and consulates by working with the Department of Homeland Security to expand our authority to waive in-person interviews for certain categories of nonimmigrant visas and for many renewals, while ensuring national security,” it said. in the memo, adding that nearly half of nonimmigrant visas in fiscal year 2022 did not include an in-person interview.
The department also explained that it is reallocating applications with high waiting times to those with additional capacity. These, combined with other tactics, allowed the department to process 94 percent of nonimmigrant visas and 130 percent of immigrant visas processed in fiscal year 2019.
“These achievements are just the beginning of a new approach to our work,” the department wrote. “Dedicated State Department personnel will continue these and additional efforts to address unprecedented demand so that the American people and the U.S. economy benefit from our doors remaining open to lawful visitors.”
Despite these efforts, the average wait time for a visitor visa interview appointment was just over three months as of August 16, with Bogotá, Colombia, and Mexico City, Mexico, holding the longest wait times of approximately two years and two months .
Klobuchar and Moran — along with Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Jackie Rosen (D-Nev.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Cory Booker (DN.J.) — subsequently wrote a letter to the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular questions Rena Bitter in February.
In it they acknowledge the department’s work in reducing waiting times and call for further action.
“We understand that the Department is dealing with significant visa requests following the evacuation of Afghanistan and Russia’s illegal and unprovoked war in Ukraine,” the senators wrote. “Unfortunately, delays in consular processing continue to present obstacles to both businesses and communities that rely on our system of legal immigration and visas for temporary guest workers, students and tourists to stimulate our economy and culture.”
In a July 11 response, Bureau of Legislative Affairs Assistant Secretary Naz Durakoglu said the department is focusing resources on the 12 embassies and consulates that account for nearly 90 percent of the backlog and would be happy to work with members of Congress on those efforts.
Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the US Travel Association, said wait times have deterred travelers and hindered US competitiveness. She praised the proposed legislation for its potential to mitigate delays and their resulting impact on the nation’s competitive position in the global tourism industry.
“This bill is critical to increasing staffing and capacity at consular services around the world and directs the State Department to set processing goals and metrics — something the U.S. travel industry has long called for,” Emerson said in a statement to The Hill . “The US Travel Association thanks Senators Klobuchar and Moran for introducing this important piece of legislation and for their continued support of the US travel and tourism industry.”
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