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Delegates at the 2021 NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference were warned that US visa processing delays are ‘unlikely to be resolved anytime soon’. Large numbers of US Embassies and Consulates around the world have not been processing visas amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weeks, concerns have been raised by stakeholders over international students being unable to attend classes at US universities for the 2021 fall semester. These concerns were heightened by an admission from a US State Department official at the conference who said: “As many appointments as possible are being offered, but there are huge visa backlogs.”
The official added that US Embassies and Consulates worldwide do not expect to resume ‘full services’ any time soon.
Challenges faced by international students
Speaking at a session during the conference, which focused on the US visa application process, international student advisor at Boston College Office of International Students and Scholars, Mike Hollabaugh, outlined some of the challenges faced by international students.
He said: “We know this is happening on a post by post basis, but students and scholars are still experiencing difficulty getting appointments, especially the discontinuation of visa services in China, which thankfully is somewhat resuming in Beijing now.”
“That is one of the top sending countries, obviously, for students and scholars to the US and that situation has been pretty devastating to students and also schools and programs,” he added.
Meanwhile, visa policy analyst for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Department of State, Kathryn Strong, acknowledged the impact that US visa processing delays have had on international students and academics.
She said: “We understand all of the frustrations and hardships that you guys are experiencing, the petitioners and the applicants. Everyone’s having to wait longer than they would like to for a visa interview. Honestly, we would like to be able to offer visa interviews sooner.”
“We are working as hard as our resources and local conditions allow to adjudicate visa applications as quickly as possible. It’s our job, it’s also the right thing to do,” she added.
Strong did point out that US President, Joe Biden, had directed the Department of State (DoS) to resume US visa processing services, especially in accordance with executive order 14012.
“That executive order is the one on restoring faith in our legal immigration systems. It’s a priority,” Strong said.
Health and safety
However, Strong stressed that US Embassies and Consulates around the world have a duty to protect the health and safety of personnel and customers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
She said: “While conditions may have improved in the US, they’ve obviously continued to worsen in some parts of the world. When we have restrictions, we’re not only thinking about the Americans and local nationals working there, but we’re also thinking about applicants waiting in crowded waiting rooms. We have to make sure they’re safe too.”
Under current US immigration rules, American Embassies and Consulates are prioritizing travelers with ‘urgent needs’, foreign diplomats, and mission-critical categories of travelers – such as those heading to the US to help in the fight against COVID or to maintain food supplies.
Student exchange visitors, some temporary US work visa applicants and student visa applicants are currently further down the priority list.
Apply in another country
During the conference, the idea of international students applying for a US visa at an Embassy or Consulate outside their own country was also discussed. However, Ms Strong, strongly advised against this.
She said: “Applicants should schedule an appointment for their nonimmigrant visa interview at the Embassy or Consulate in the country where they live. Officers in each country are best equipped to interview with all of the depth of knowledge and language skills needed to help applicants who live there.”
Strong added that it’s more difficult for applicants to qualify for a US visa outside of the country in which they live.
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