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President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order on immigration did more than just block refugees and nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries; it also eliminated a program aimed at easing the work of U.S. consulates.
That, combined with the president’s earlier federal hiring freeze, could muck up the immigration process for nationals of countries that aren’t even considered a security threat. “We’ll see backlogs develop relatively soon,” Kevin Miner of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy in Atlanta told Bloomberg BNA.
The Visa Interview Waiver Program allows foreign nationals who are renewing their temporary visas to skip the in-person interview and instead use a “dropbox” for their renewal applications. The idea was that individuals renewing their visas already had gone through an in-person interview to get the visa in the first place, and so any security risk was lacking.
But if everyone now has to make an interview appointment, available time may be hard to come by, Miner said Jan. 26, ahead of the signing of the order.
That’s particularly the case in India, where many workers on H-1B visas for highly skilled guestworkers are from, he said. Consulates in the populous country rely on the dropbox system to keep from getting backed up with interviews, Miner said.
Without a way to minimize that burden, backlogs are inevitable, he said.
There isn’t a problem if a temporary worker stays in the U.S. and his or her employer petitions for an extension of status, Jeffrey Bell of Polsinelli in Kansas City, Mo., told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 31. But H-1B visas last for three years—with the option for a three-year extension—and the “vast majority” of workers travel outside the U.S. for business or family reasons during that time, he said.
Even if a worker’s H-1B status has been extended, if he or she leaves the country after the expiration of the initial visa, that visa has to be renewed for the worker to be able to return to the U.S., Bell said. Immigration status and visas are two separate things, he said.
Requiring everyone to undergo an interview means a longer wait time for an appointment, perhaps weeks or months, Miner said. And that’s not just those who now have to have an interview for visa renewals—even those seeking visas for the first time will have to wait longer because of all the extra interviews that will need to be scheduled, he said.
Both employers and their foreign workers are likely to feel an impact from the extra wait, Bell said. Employers may not have planned for their workers to be gone as long as they are, he said. And workers have the added expense of having to stay abroad for longer than anticipated, plus the possibility of lost wages, he said.
The executive order attempts to alleviate the burden by expanding the Consular Fellows Program. The program places temporary, noncareer federal workers in U.S. consulates, where they primarily adjudicate visa applications. The order calls for increasing the number of fellows, lengthening their term of service and providing additional language skills training.
But how quickly that program can ramp up remains to be seen, Bell said. He also said he’s “not quite sure how that fits in with the federal hiring freeze.”
The earlier executive order on the hiring freeze does provide exceptions for national security and other needs, Bell said. But it will be up to the administration whether consular fellows fall into those exceptions, and it’s not clear whether the provision in the immigration order does exempt them from the freeze, he said.
“The role of the consular officer who conducts the visa interview is pretty specialized, and it isn’t easy to find people with the necessary language skills and other qualifications,” Miner said Jan. 31. “I still believe that the hiring freeze combined with the termination of the visa interview waiver program will lead to backlogs in the availability of visa application appointments.”
But consular fellows may be able to perform ministerial duties, freeing up more time for consular officers to conduct interviews instead, Bell said.
There’s some uncertainty over when the suspension of the visa interview waiver program took effect, Cyrus Mehta of Cyrus Mehta & Partners in New York told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 30.
People who had already put their visa renewal applications in the dropbox when the order was signed may now have to schedule an interview, he said.
Considering that the ban on admissions of nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen took effect while people were mid-air suggests that applications in the dropbox will be subject to an interview, he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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