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US says India is its number one priority in reducing visa wait times

BY JYOTHSNA HEGDE

“India is the number one priority that we are facing right now. We are absolutely committed to getting out of this situation. Anyone in India seeking a visa appointment or visa would have to wait a long time – that’s not certainly our ideal,” Julie Stufft, Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for Visa Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs said at a media interaction organized by FIDS (Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies) on February 21, 2023, in Washington DC.

The FIDS has been working with the Biden Administration for the past several months on addressing various issues facing the diaspora, including the visa wait time which has affected thousands of guest workers, students, businessman and families. Layoffs in the Tech sector have further complicated the situation, disrupting fired families on H1B visas, who are required to seek alternate employment within two months or leave the county.

The H-1B visa, under the Immigration and Nationality Act, is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise.

Highlighting the significance of the issue and its priority for the administration, Nancy Jackson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia noted that “people-to-people ties between” the two nations “are really the bedrock of what is one of the most consequential relationships in the world and that is the India-US relationship.” “And we can’t underscore that enough and so addressing the wait time (issue) that we were facing is critical. Not only to maintain these people-to-people ties but also to expand in that space,” she emphasized, adding that the matter is a top priority for officials from Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

“I’m really moved that DAS Nancy Jackson considers people-to-people connections as bedrock in the US-India strategic relations. Her thoughts are reflected in actions and their results in progress not only on reducing visa appointment delays but also on the openness to engage with Indian American community on various matters related to US-India relations,” Khanderao Kand, Director, FIDS told NRI Pulse.

Various steps by the State Department to reduce visa time, Stufft said included – sending several officials to India to conduct the interviews, screening of visa applications by officials at the State Department here in the US, more categories being waived off from visa interviews, involving officials from its other diplomatic missions in the process and opening up its embassies and missions in other countries such as Thailand and Germany for Indian visa-seekers for an in-person interview

“For first-time visitor appointments, we’ve cut a year and two months off the wait time already. Now, the second year we take off of that is going to be harder than the first, but we’re going to get there,” she said.

Stufft also announced that the US will start the Visa stamping program domestically within the US for visa renewals, including H-1 and L-1. Visa. “This fall will be the first that we’ll be able to put out a call for applications. The pilot is this summer..and we’re gonna be doing it for people in worker status. So that would be H’s and L and, and I’s.”

Expanding its interview waiver process for some temporary workers, students and academic exchange visitors, “All the non-visitor time or student-visa have very very low wait times and that’s really key. Our H-1B and F student’s wait time were just as high almost six months ago and so we brought down the wait time,” she added.

Indian applicants who happen to be travelling for business to another country can go apply for a US visa. Describing it as “unprecedented”, missions are open in countries such as Thailand and Germany Sufft noted, where US embassies take on India visa applicants specifically if they choose to travel there.” Our biggest place where we’re doing this right now is Bangkok. Thailand is a place where Indian citizens don’t need a visa to travel to. And anyone who even needs a visitor visa appointment can go to Bangkok,” she said.

“We brought down the wait for people who don’t need an interview. We made a lot of progress on that. And just because of the sheer number of visitor visa applications, which is our largest category around the world, certainly in India, we still have that one wait time to go after,” she said.

“Also, we’ve waived interviews for anyone who’s been a repeat traveler,” Stufft said.

The US Mission in Frankfurt among others is allowing people who maybe are in the US travelling out to go there rather than come all the way back home, she said, adding that this has really helped people who are urgently trying to travel on a visitor visa.

“We have seen this actually working. In the last few months, Indian citizens have applied to more than a hundred different US embassies overseas, and many of them are travelling from India for that appointment. So this is something people are taking advantage of,” Stufft noted.

On January 21, the US Mission in India launched special Saturday interview days to reduce wait times for first-time visa applicants. The US Embassy in New Delhi and Consulates in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad all opened consular operations on Saturday to accommodate applicants who require in-person visa interviews.

The US Mission will continue to open additional slots for appointments to take place on select Saturdays, according to the statement released by US Embassy in India. These additional interview days are among the measures that have been taken to address the backlog in visa processing caused by COVID-19.

“When we started working on this issue last August, eliminating 600 to 900 days seemed impossible to address in six months, but the DAS Julie Stufft shown remarkable leadership to do everything and more, specially bringing innovations like remote processing, Super Saturday and out of country visa appointments. They really made a huge impact on H1B, L1/L2 and F1 categories and knocked off an year from B1/B2 wait time,” Kand said.

The US Department of State has implemented remote processing of interview waiver cases for applicants with previous US visas. According to the statement, dozens of temporary consular officers from Washington and other embassies will arrive in India to increase processing capacity in January-March.

As a result of these steps, Stufft said the US has issued 36 per cent more visas than it did before the pandemic in India during normal times and expected to go up through the year.

“We are throwing all of our resources against this (visa delay issue) and we are seeing progress,” Jackson noted.

Since August 2022, FIDS has been working and following up on visa-related issues and related impacts. In the first few months, they began raising awareness about this issue both within the Indian American community as well as their elected representatives. As the visa appointment delays continued to grow, FIIDS expressed concerns to the Secretary of State Antony Blinken and India’s external affairs minister (EAM) Hon. Dr. S. Jaishankar on Sept 25, 2022. Both dignitaries discussed the issue at their joint press conference on 27th of Sept 2022 with assurance to address the concerns.

FIIDS further launched a Change.org petition highlighting immigration issues among the top issues of concern of Indian American voters in Nov 2022 elections. Mr. Khanderao Kand and Mr. Narsimha Koppula from FIIDS subsequently met the US’s Charge D’affair Mr. Heath in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi on the 9th of Nov as a part of a joint delegation of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and FIIDS to India. Their discussion. During the discussions about delay concerns, Mr. Heath acknowledged and mentioned that they are working on hiring and training personnel to increase the rate of visa application processing to reduce the backlog in 2023.

Upon invitation from Hon. Nancy Jackson, on 1st of Dec, FIIDS discussed the issue with officials from the Bureau of Central and South Asia and the Bureau of Consular Affairs State Department official, Jennifer Sudweeks. Another meeting was held on 21st December for further discussions.

The press event on Feb 21, 2023 was a culmination of the combined efforts from all parties involved.

Thanks to the steps taken by the department of consular affairs, during the last few months, the Department of State has successfully brought down H-1B, F1 appointment delays from 300+ days to around 60 days and B1/B2 appointments from 900 days to 600 days.

In a press release, FIIDS said, members will continue to work with the US administrations on immigration-related issues. Their immediate priority is to get the grace period for laid-off H1B holders to be extended by the USCIS from 2 months to 6-12 months on humanitarian grounds.

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