If you thought Bermuda immigration was bad ...
A Colombian family hoping to visit Disney World right now may have to wait more than two years to get their visas. The same goes for a Nigerian investor looking to close a funding round in Silicon Valley. Around the world, delays in visa processing are preventing scores of foreigners from coming to the United States — hurting the economy, sapping investment and undermining America’s image. Fixing the problem demands a more forceful and creative response than the US Government has mustered thus far.
While processing times vary greatly from consulate to consulate, the average wait for an appointment to obtain a US visitor visa is nearly 240 days — roughly eight months. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic is partly to blame: two years of Covid-19 restrictions led to staff attrition and limited services at US consulates around the world. The State Department says it has made progress in clearing the backlog, with the number of visas issued monthly approaching pre-pandemic levels. Yet the Government still isn’t anywhere close to keeping up with demand.
The long wait for visas has costs. Tourists will simply go elsewhere, as will at least some executives and investors. (For comparison, wait times in Britain now average seven weeks, while in Australia 90 per cent of tourist visas are processed within six weeks.) Businesses will struggle without access to key talent. Universities could lose the brightest students to rivals abroad. The hit to US prestige could be even more long-lasting: the country’s reputation has already been battered by political dysfunction, gun violence, and racial and cultural divisions; making it more difficult for people to study, invest and visit relatives in the US will hardly improve matters.
Unlike more politically fraught immigration issues, this problem is eminently fixable. In 2012, an executive order issued by Barack Obama shrunk average wait times from a few months to a few days, before it was rescinded by Donald Trump to allow for more aggressive screening of applicants.
The Biden Administration should intensify efforts to speed up the visa process. The State Department should authorise virtual interviews for some low-risk tourist and business visas, and allow staff in the US and in less overwhelmed consulates abroad to conduct them. Holders of valid visas should be allowed to renew them in the US rather than having to return home first, as was common practice until 2004, thus easing strain on overseas consulates. In addition to hiring new staff abroad, the Government could call back retired consular officers and temporarily deputise others to process renewals and conduct remote interviews. A programme to waive interviews for some categories of visas until the end of the year should be extended until the present crisis has passed.
All these moves should be manageable without adversely affecting security. Although the State Department suspended domestic renewals of visas in 2004 because it was unable to capture biometrics at the time, that should no longer be a problem, since applicants will have already registered their biometrics for their expiring visas. As the American Immigration Lawyers Association has suggested, technology can help to identify low-risk individuals who can be interviewed remotely, while maintaining in-person interviews for applicants who require more scrutiny.
Improving the visa-processing system would not only address the existing backlog but help prevent future delays from building up. The global competition for investment, talent and influence is only going to grow fiercer in coming years. The US should embrace any measures that help it stay in the game.