The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively shut down immigration to the U.S. from abroad. Immigrant visa issuances dropped to 23% of pre-pandemic levels. Nonimmigrant visa issuances dropped to 17% of pre-pandemic levels.

The Biden Administration must step up and implement a solution to clear the visa backlog.

As the pandemic continues to severely affect worldwide visa operations, families of U.S. citizens and residents as well as U.S. businesses that depend on foreign talent are hurting. Consular interview appointments are scarce or unavailable. And clients are understandably anxious about being stuck outside of the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

Immigrant Visa Backlog

The suspension of routine visa services and COVID-19 travel bans reduced immigrant visa issuances to a quarter of pre-pandemic levels. Before the pandemic, the number of immigrant visas issued averaged about 39,000 a month. During the pandemic, that number dropped to an average of about 9,000 a month.

The immigrant visa backlog at the National Visa Center (NVC) has increased by 800% during the pandemic. In 2019, an average of 60,866 immigrants were waiting for interviews each month. As of May 2021, the NVC is holding on to 481,965 documentarily complete visa applications that are pending the scheduling of an interview. Worldwide, only 22,576 immigrant visa interviews were scheduled for May 2021.

Nonimmigrant Visa Backlog

The nonimmigrant visa backlog is equally overwhelming. Consular closures and travel bans saw nonimmigrant visa issuances reduced to a sixth of pre-pandemic levels. Before the pandemic, an average of over 721,000 nonimmigrant visas were issued each month worldwide. During the pandemic, an average of fewer than 126,000 nonimmigrant visas were issued each month.

Some visa categories were impacted less severely than others. An analysis of U.S. Department of State (DOS) E visa issuances, for example, shows that posts were still able to issue about half of the number of treaty trader and investor visas than before the pandemic.

Visa Prioritization

All consular posts are providing emergency and mission-critical visa services. But full operations will resume on a post-by-post basis, based on COVID-19 numbers, lockdowns, travel restrictions, quarantine regulations, medical infrastructure, emergency response capabilities, and measures taken by posts to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Immigrant visas are prioritized over nonimmigrant visas. Generally, family-based applications are prioritized over employment-based applications.

The State Department recently divided the immigrant visa categories into four tiers of priority. (1) Adoption visas, age-out cases, and certain special immigrant visas for Afghan and Iraqi nationals working for the U.S. government. (2) Immediate relative, fiancé(e), and returning resident visas. (3) Family preference and special immigrant visas for certain employees of the U.S. government abroad. (4) All other immigrant visas, including employment-based and diversity visa petitions.

As far as nonimmigrant visas, applicants with urgent needs, foreign diplomats, and mission-critical categories of travelers (assisting with the pandemic response or providing essential work that supports the food supply) will be prioritized, followed by students, exchange visitors, and some temporary employment visa applicants.

How Practitioners Can Help Clients

Various strategies exist to help clients get their visas. (1) Request an interview waiver for nonimmigrant visa renewals. (2) Request a visa waiver at the port-of-entry on Form I-193. (3) Apply for an extension of stay in the U.S. (4) Seek congressional liaison assistance. (5) Find out which posts process visas for third country nationals. (6) Challenge unreasonable processing delays in federal court.

In order to truly reopen the United States to immigrants, the Biden Administration must expand the interview waiver and visa waiver options or provide another alternative to speed up visa issuances abroad. Only then will the U.S. effectively clear the visa backlog, allowing families to be reunited, businesses to grow, and our shared prosperity to increase, helping the U.S. and the world build back post-pandemic.


Stay informed about the latest developments in immigration law and policy by attending the 2021 AILA Annual Conference on Immigration Law from June 9-12. See the full program for more details.