Legal Blog

Policy U-Turn: US Visas to be Issued in DC

Visa stamp travel passport immigration macro emigrationOn February 9th Bloomberg Law reported on an interview they conducted with Julie Stufft, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, in which Ms. Stufft outlined a Department of State (DOS) plan to restore stateside visa renewals. Which means that eligible nonimmigrants would be able to renew their visa stamps without leaving the country. This marks the turning point in the DOS policy on stateside visa renewals, which were largely discontinued in 2004 except for diplomats and international organization employees. It is great news for H and L visa holders who will be included in the trial program. Details are currently vague, but it will likely include a limited subset of those visa holders.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought the policy into the forefront, with multiple organizations seeking assistance from the DOS in accepting stateside visa renewals. This was requested as the pandemic had led to the global closure of embassies and consulates worldwide, which in turn prevented thousands of individuals from traveling abroad with the fear they would not be able to return as there was no mechanism to renew their visa. Further, The Trump administration policies to ban certain visa issuances and strip the DOS of staff still have legacy impacts to the visa processing process.

The many voices calling for stateside visa issuance fail to grasp the reality of implementing such a complex and massive undertaking. The DOS certainly has the capabilities to set up such a program, but the resources and procedures are vast, ranging from detailed security screening to secure document handling, possibly including online visa interviews with applicants and a myriad of additional complexities. Ms. Stufft alluded in her interview that the expansion of stateside visa processing would require setting up a new consular division in Washington, D.C.

The main point of contention that ended the vast majority of stateside visa processing was the biometric requirements for visas required in 2004. How the DOS plans to address this is vague right now. Still, there are many national biometric screening centers operated by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). We could see an expansion of use of these centers or the reliance on previously obtained biometrics – a policy implemented by the USCIS during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although the details provided are vague, this change in policy provides another level of protection for nonimmigrant visa holders and hopefully provide more certainty for international travel as visa wait times continue to suffer worldwide. The DOS has continued to highlight their programs to address worldwide visa backlogs, which have included expanded waivers for interviews, special programs to assist individuals affected by the trump administration policies and increased appointments. Further steps recommended to the DOS by a variety of groups include adding additional missions, allowing online visa appointments and streamlining the interview waiver process to cut wait times.

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Michael J. Freestone is a Principal in the firm’s Immigration Law group where he advises individual and corporate clients of all sizes on a range of immigration-related issues. He specializes in strategic immigration planning with a focus on long-term strategies and develops robust immigration law compliance programs for his corporate clients. He handles non‐immigrant petitions, visa and consular issues, employment and family-based immigrant petitions, adjustment of status applications and naturalization.