The COVID-19 pandemic caused an abrupt halt to many visa services, however, in the past month many of these services have resumed. Individuals wishing to work or study in the United States should closely monitor the latest updates from the US Department of State and contact a Chicago immigration lawyer to determine the best way to proceed with their visa application. It is important to note that while some visa programs have been suspended, the current restrictions do not affect the visa waiver program.
Visa Services That Have Resumed
The US Department of State is slowly resuming the processing of routine immigrant visas and non-citizen visas. This includes travelers who have urgent needs in the United States, students who have F-1 and M-1 visas. They are also processing some J-1 visas for exchanges. Additionally, immigrant visas for family members of US citizens are being processed as are some E and B1 visas.
Of course, people are concerned about contracting COVID-19 when dropping off visa documentation or for interviews. The US Department of State has issued guidelines to all consulates and embassies to help minimize this possibility. This includes social distancing in waiting areas, staggering interviews to minimize potential contact with infected individuals, and frequent disinfection of common areas.
National Interest Exemption
Some travelers to the United States may qualify for a National Interest Exemption (NIE). This is in line with Presidential Proclamation 9993 that previously prevented travel to the United States from Schengen countries. Individuals who may qualify for an NIE include public health professionals, students, academics, investors, technical experts, specialists, senior-level managers, executives, professional athletes, and their dependents and essential staff. Investors may also qualify in some circumstances. Further, some consulates are processing visa applications for diplomats and officials of international organizations, as well as medical professionals responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as aircrew with C1 or D visas.
A Fluid Situation
The global pandemic is creating a fluid, and ever-evolving situation for immigrants. The current phased resumption of routine visa services is contingent upon the conditions prevalent in the country where each embassy or consulate is located. In countries where infection rates remain high or are climbing, most embassies and consulates continue to provide limited visa services. At present, there is no set timeline for when the resumption of regular services will occur, nor is there a definitive timeline for when the pre-pandemic pace of visa processing will occur.
As such, it is vital for all visa applicants to continue monitoring the website of the nearest US embassy or consulate. In particular, individuals should pay close attention to when appointments are available and any changes to required documentation. Each embassy and consulate has been given broad discretion to determine when it is safe to resume normal visa processing activities. This means that the services available in one country today, may not be available in another country for weeks or potentially months from now.
Visa Scams are Common
Scammers are eager to make a quick buck during the present pandemic. Individuals wishing to come to the United States should be extremely cautious when approached by individuals promising quick and easy processing of their visas. Con artists are active in countries around the world preying on the needs and fears of immigrants hoping to make their way to the United States, or hoping to extend an existing visa.
Individuals should never provide personal information to these individuals, nor should they pay any “fees” for the services offered. The US State Department routinely warns applicants of these scams and has seen a proliferation of visa schemes over the past few months. Moreover, applicants can expect their visa application will receive considerable scrutiny at this time. Thus, it is imperative that all information is accurate and submitted with the required supporting documentation.
Furloughs May Still Occur
Early in the pandemic, the US Department of State issued warnings that furloughs may become necessary as the pandemic progresses. This is because the USCIS derives much of its funding from the processing of visas. Furloughs were postponed until the end of August. While it does appear that the USCIS will have enough funding to cover the loss of revenue due to declining applications, the possibility of furloughs is still on the table. If this occurs, it could significantly increase the visa processing time. Current estimates indicate that up to 14,000 USCIS personnel may be furloughed for an indefinite period.
Legislators in Washington are attempting to include additional funding for USCIS as part of a coronavirus relief package to prevent any furloughs. However, this package is currently stalled and it is unlikely that it will be passed before the end of August. This means that applicants should gather their necessary documents and submit their applications as soon as possible.