December 10, 2023

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Avoiding Visa Bottlenecks Abroad: Domestic Renewals Explained

4 min read

Workplace immigration attorneys and foreign tech workers celebrated the news last week that the State Department plans to launch a pilot program allowing stateside visa renewals.

Restoring domestic visa reissuance on a limited basis later this year after a two-decade suspension will allow foreign workers to renew visas without returning to their home countries, where they may face months-long wait times.

Workers renewing expired visas currently must get an appointment at a US embassy or consulate abroad. But many countries like India, the biggest source of high-skill temporary workers, have large backlogs for those appointments that haven’t met demand from travelers.

The return of stateside visa renewals offers relief to H-1B and L-1 visa holders hoping to visit family members or pursue other travel abroad. Those visas allow for hiring of foreign workers for specialty occupation roles and intracompany transfer of managerial employees, respectively, and are especially popular in the tech industry. Employer groups and immigration advocates had called for that step to give temporary visa holders certainty about their ability to reenter the US after leaving the country.

The bottlenecks abroad have led many workers to delay visits to see family for multiple years. Others who have left the US because of emergencies have experienced disruptions of careers and personal lives because of the delays.

1. What’s behind wait times abroad?

Although the total number of visas issued by the State Department bounced back in fiscal 2022 after years of Covid-19 restrictions—in some categories surpassing pre-pandemic numbers—travelers in many countries still face major hurdles coming to the US because demand outstrips available visa appointments at consular offices. That’s true despite measures like interview waivers for many visa categories and, more recently, expanded weekend hours.

The backlogs are made worse by the fact that workers with H-1B visas and other nonimmigrants must renew their visas outside the US, significantly adding to the workload of consular offices. Although adding sufficient numbers of adjudicators abroad in the coming months is also seen as a necessary step, advocates have said adding domestic visa processing in the US could help to reduce wait times overall.

2. Why did the US stop offering stateside visa renewals?

Until 2004, nonimmigrants who were previously issued a visa abroad could apply to renew via mail in the US for up to a year after their visa expired. The State Department discontinued the option thereafter because it said it couldn’t fulfill post-9/11 requirements to collect biometric data, including fingerprints, for visa holders renewing domestically.

In the past two decades though, new technology has made it easier to obtain applicants’ fingerprints anywhere, meaning the agency can process renewals without collecting them again. And workers in the US now have already provided biometric data before renewing their visas. The biggest obstacle to reinstating the option was setting up a new division at the Office of Consular Affairs, Julie Stufft, deputy assistant secretary of visa services, told Bloomberg Law.

3. Who will benefit from the pilot?

The State Department hasn’t announced details of the pilot program, but initially it will offer domestic renewal options to H and L visa holders, Stufft said. Over time it may be expanded to cover additional nonimmigrant visa categories.

The biggest immediate beneficiaries of stateside visa renewals will be Indian nationals who make up nearly three-quarters of H-1B specialty occupation visa recipients each year. Because of green card backlogs, those workers are likely to spend years longer on temporary status than counterparts from other countries. More than 95,000 visas were renewed domestically in 2004 before the State Department discontinued the option. That number is likely to go up because of the growth in workers on temporary visas.

Securing visa renewals in the US would allow those workers to make long-delayed trips to see family, take vacations abroad, or travel for business on a short-term basis. The pilot also would have indirect benefits for first-time visa applicants who could see reduced consular backlogs when renewals are taken off of their workload.

4. What will it mean for US businesses?

Many employers have advised temporary visa holders to avoid travel to their home countries for visa renewals because of “horror stories” of workers stuck abroad indefinitely until they secure an appointment. Even if job duties can be performed remotely, time zone differences can pose difficulties for collaboration and extended time abroad can create tax problems.

Renewing visas in the US would offer more certainty that workers could leave the country without significant interruptions to employment that have disrupted deadlines and work duties at some companies. The option also saves workers financial burdens and puts the US on par with competitors for foreign talent like Canada and the United Kingdom, the Institute for Progress wrote last year.

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