At long last, the State Department is taking action to restore domestic visa issuance for some employment-based visa categories. Currently, visas can only be issued by a U.S. Consulate. Both first-time visa applicants and people renewing expiring visas must work through the visa process abroad, which typically includes submitting an electronic application and attending a visa interview at the Consulate. In the post-COVID era, visa appointments can be hard to come by, as some Consulates are still struggling to clear appointment backlogs from extended pandemic closures. At some Consular posts, applicants must wait months for a visa appointment.

These long visa appointment wait times are particularly problematic for people living and working in the U.S. on employment-based non-immigrant visas. A person must have a valid visa in their passport in order to enter the U.S., but after they have arrived, how long they are legally allowed to stay in the U.S. is controlled by their I-94 record from Customs and any status changes or extensions they receive through the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service. The visa is the person’s ticket in the door, but it doesn’t control how long they can stay in the U.S. It is very common for a person to be in legal status in the U.S. but have an expired visa in their passport. Problems can arise when a foreign worker with an expired visa needs to travel on short notice, either for a business trip abroad or a family emergency in their home country. The person must get a new visa in their passport from a Consulate abroad before they can return to the U.S. Visa appointment delays causes some applicants to get stuck waiting for months abroad, which negatively impacts not only the visa applicant but also the U.S. employer.

In the past, foreign nationals living in the U.S. had the option to renew their visas without leaving the country by mailing their documents to the State Department. However, this policy was discontinued in 2004 due to post-9/11 security concerns. Advances in biometrics capturing technology and the increased burdens facing U.S. Consulates as a result of the pandemic have led the State Department to re-evaluate the domestic visa renewal option.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg Law, a State Department official announced plans to launch a pilot program offering domestic visa renewals for H-1B and L-1 visa holders. These visa categories are for specialty occupation professionals and international transferees, and both require an approved petition from USCIS before a person can seek the visa. Since these workers have already been vetted twice – by USCIS through the petition process and by a Consulate abroad through their initial visa application – the security risks for allowing these workers to renew their visas domestically without an interview are low. Getting these workers out of Consular visa queues will also help reduce overall wait times for all visa categories, since more appointments will now be available for people who can’t renew their visas stateside.

Immigration advocates, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, have long been pushing for this change and applaud the State Department’s plans. If the pilot program works well, the hope is that it will eventually be expanded to include additional visa categories. No timeline for the launch of the program or details on who can qualify have yet been announced, but this is a positive step forward in making the U.S. immigration system more efficient.

Best Law Offices will continue to monitor this developing program and will help our clients find the visa renewal strategy that best meets their individual needs.

in two new changes impacting U.S. immigration. First, the U.S. State Department announced last month that all routine visa services at the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in China are temporarily suspended. Passport and emergency services for U.S. citizens are still available, and limited emergency visa services are available at some posts, but most immigrant and non-immigrant visa appointments have been canceled. No estimate has been given as to when routine services will resume. Chinese citizens seeking to apply for U.S. visas may have to wait for an extended time to get a new visa appointment.

Hopefully, the Consular closures in China will indeed be temporary, and we won’t see the year-long closures that were common in the early days of the pandemic. Those extended closures created massive appointment backlogs, which are still causing appointment delays in some countries. But, Chinese travelers in need of U.S. visas may need to make alternate plans. Most U.S. Consulates are once again accepting visa appointments from third-country nationals (i.e., citizens or residents of other countries), but waiting times for outsiders can be significantly longer, as some posts have separate appointment queues for third-country applicants.

The second change is that as of January 5, 2023, any aircraft passenger (including U.S. citizens) travelling to the U.S. from China must present a negative COVID test or proof of recovery from COVID-19. This requirement also applies to anyone who has been physically present in China within the last 10 days, even if they are not traveling directly from China to the U.S. The CDC stopped requiring negative COVID tests from all arriving aircraft passengers back in June 2022, requiring instead that all non-immigrants arriving in the U.S. be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccination requirement remains unchanged, with this new additional testing requirement now in place for travel from China.

In the post-COVID world, travel policies are constantly evolving, so it’s important for international travelers and visa applicants to stay informed. Contact Best Law Offices today if you have questions about these or any other immigration issues!