The State Department will launch a pilot program later this year offering visa renewal options in the US for H-1B specialty occupation workers and other temporary visa holders who are currently required to travel abroad.
Restoring stateside visa renewals, which were discontinued in 2004, will save those applicants from having to leave the country, and will reduce the workload of consular offices abroad, Julie Stufft, deputy assistant secretary for visa services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, told Bloomberg Law in an interview.
“We all saw during the pandemic how difficult it was for these people to return to their home country and often not be able to get visa appointments to come back to their home, the United States,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to address initially with this.”
The stateside renewal option will be available to H and L visa holders and could eventually be expanded, Stufft said.
H-1B visas, especially popular in the tech industry, allow employers to add foreign workers for two three-year periods, although workers can apply for multiple extensions with an approved green card petition. L-1 visas are available for employers that want to transfer managerial workers to the US from overseas offices.
Immigration lawyers and business groups have urged the State Department to add the domestic renewal option as a measure to address visa bottlenecks abroad, especially in India, the biggest source of H-1B visa holders. Foreign workers who travel abroad can’t reenter the US without a valid visa stamp. But long wait times for appointments during the pandemic meant many were stuck abroad for months, adding disruptions for employers.
The agency said last year that it was pursuing domestic renewals, but offered few details about a possible timeline. Adding the domestic processing option doesn’t require the State Department to issue new regulations. But part of the challenge, Stufft said, was that adding the option involves setting up a new consular division in Washington, DC.
“That’s not a small endeavor,” she said.
The stateside renewal option would be an important step for workers and employers, said Shev Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which had pushed for the return of stateside visa renewals.
“The need became even more apparent with the pandemic and delays in visa processing because people were really left in limbo,” she said. “If they had to travel, it wasn’t guaranteed that they were able to get their visa stamp to return.”
The benefits of stateside renewals would extend to first-time applicants who have to seek appointments at US consular offices, said Tiffany Derentz, senior counsel at Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP and a former State Department adviser.
“That should open up their capacity do a lot more interviews and get wait times down,” she said.