In response to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting delays in visa processing, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have implemented several noteworthy changes that impact immigrants and visa applicants. Here’s a summary of these developments:
Visa Interview Waivers:
- The pandemic led to significant delays in visa interviews at U.S. consulates, with some wait times exceeding a year in certain locations like Toronto and major Indian cities.
- To address the backlog and meet the needs of businesses relying on foreign workers, the State Department began waiving in-person interviews for certain temporary visa renewal applicants whose visas had expired within the prior 24 months (extended to 48 months in March 2021).
- Starting December 2021, consular officers were given the authority to waive interviews for certain temporary work, student, and exchange visitor visas (F, H, J, L, M, O, P, and Q) for individuals meeting specific criteria, including no prior visa denials and no apparent ineligibility. (Exceptions apply to nationals of countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism.)
- These interview waivers have played a crucial role in reducing visa processing times, with 48% of the 6.8 million nonimmigrant visas issued in FY 2022 being approved without an in-person interview.
- However, it’s essential to note that this interview waiver authority is set to expire at the end of December, potentially leading to renewed delays if not renewed.
Work Permit Extensions:
- USCIS has faced a backlog of approximately 1.6 million employment authorization document (EAD) applications as of October 2023, double the number from March 2020.
- The agency has increased the validity length of work permits for various categories, including asylum applicants, refugees, asylees, and green card applicants from within the United States. These new work permits are now valid for up to five years, reducing renewal fees and USCIS workload.
- In the past, USCIS provided a 180-day auto-extension for many EAD applicants who filed renewal applications on time. However, this practice was discontinued in May 2022, leading to concerns about work authorization lapses.
- To address this, USCIS temporarily increased auto-extensions to 540 days for applications filed before October 26, 2023, allowing affected workers to continue employment while awaiting renewal processing.
- It remains to be seen whether USCIS will reinstate longer auto-extension periods, depending on the agency’s ability to process renewal applications efficiently.
These changes aim to alleviate the hardships faced by immigrants and visa applicants due to pandemic-related disruptions and backlog challenges. Stay informed about updates in visa processing and work permit policies, as they can significantly impact your immigration status and employment opportunities.