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Background

  • The Biden-Harris administration has taken steps to resume processing immigrant visas for qualified applicants.  However, many immigrant visa applicants are subject to pandemic-related presidential proclamations remaining in place that restrict issuance of visas, including for those who have been in certain countries during the preceding 14 days before entry or attempted entry to the United States. Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services Stufft explains the current state of immigrant visa processing, the restrictions that remain in place, and how the Department of State is seeking to reduce the backlog of immigrant visa applications as efficiently as possible within the process designed to secure U.S. borders.   

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR:  Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s on-the-record virtual briefing.  I’m Liz Detmeister, director of the Foreign Press Centers, and this morning I’m pleased to welcome our briefer, Julie Stufft, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Department of State.  Today she will provide an update on immigrant visa processing at U.S. embassies and consulates.

Before we get started, here’s a quick review of the ground rules.  This briefing is on the record.  We will post the transcript and video of this briefing on our website, fpc.state.gov.  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, we kindly ask you to share a link to your story by sending an email to us at dcfpc@state.gov.

Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Stufft will give opening remarks, and then we will open it up for questions.  I will start with the questions that were pre-submitted, and then if you have a question, please go to the participant field and virtually raise your hand or type your question into the chat.  At that time, we will – when you’re called on, we will unmute you and request you turn on your video so you can ask your question.  If you wish to be on camera for the entire briefing, please turn on your camera now.  And last and most important, if you’ve not already done so, please rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your outlet so I can know who’s asking a question.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Stufft.

MS STUFFT:  Thank you so much, Liz, and thank you to the Foreign Press Center for the invitation to be here today.  Good morning, everyone.  To all the journalists on the line, thank you for dialing in.  It’s really a pleasure to come here today to speak to you about the State Department’s efforts to process immigrant visa cases during this challenging period.

I also want to share how we’re working on reducing the current backlog of these cases.  You may have seen that I did a similar briefing last week with a more domestic-focused audience.  I’m glad to be here to address any specific concerns your audiences may have.

We’re working under three guiding principles as we address the backlog of immigrant visa cases.  First, we want to acknowledge the stress and hardships borne by petitioners and applicants due to reduced capacity to adjudicate visas during the pandemic, various restrictions on visa issuance, and COVID-related limitations on everyone’s travel.  We know this is difficult, and we’re striving to provide the best possible service while doing so safely.

Which leads me to my next point.  The health and safety of our personnel and our clients coming into our consular sections abroad continue to be our highest priority and the department’s highest priority during the pandemic.

Finally, I’m sure you’re aware of President Biden’s initial actions on immigration, in particular Executive Order 14012 on Restoring Faith in our Legal Immigration Systems.  I want to reiterate our commitment at the Department of State to resolve backlogs and process visas as quickly and efficiently as we can while remaining committed to the national security of the United States.

So let’s turn to the current situation of the rescission of Presidential Proclamation 10014, which means there’s no general restriction existing on issuing immigrant visas.  However, many immigrant visa applicants are subject to other presidential proclamations, including those for certain countries during the preceding 14 days before entry or attempted entry to the United States.  These countries are China, Iran, Brazil, UK, Ireland, South Africa, and the 26 countries in the Schengen Area.  Spouses and children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are excepted from these restrictions.

Fundamentally, very importantly, we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic that has had a dramatic impact on our visa processing operations.  The pandemic has limited our operations in two main ways.  It drastically decreased the number of people we can safely move through our facilities overseas, and it reduced the number of staff that we can safely have in the office interviewing visa applicants at one time.

If you’re here as a member of foreign press, chances are you’ve spent some time in a visa waiting room at one of our embassies or consulates overseas.  Many of them were built to hold hundreds of people at a time so that we could serve thousands of people on any given day.  In this era of social distancing, we’ve had to drastically reduce those numbers for everyone’s safety, even in our largest spaces.  And, of course, we must adhere to local host government restrictions on activities due to the pandemic.  All of these factors mean that by definition we can’t serve nearly as many people as we did before the pandemic.

Given these challenges, we are taking three key steps to address the situation.  First, we prioritize the processing of immigrant visas at every post.  As there is capacity, there – these will be the first visas adjudicated.  Among those we will continue to prioritize the processing of immigrant visas for the spouses and children of U.S. citizens, including fiance(e) visas not subject to regional restrictions.  As I said at the start, we recognize the stress and hardship on these families.

Second, we are constantly seeking creative ways to increase the number of immigrant visa appointments we can safely offer.  We generally must conduct immigrant visa interviews in person, and we are also required to collect biometrics from our applicants.  Given that our physical spaces overseas are so different, many of these creative solutions are context-specific.  One embassy has outfitted alternate spaces within the embassy complex to create physically distanced work spaces to process more applications.  Other embassies and consulates are cross-training personnel so that more staff can process immigrant visa applications.  As we collect and share these best practices, we will find new ways to serve as many applicants as we can safely.

Finally, we’re committed to transparently sharing the current status of our worldwide visa operations with you.  In my briefing last week, I shared some statistics that you may have seen.  In January 2020, there were about 75,000 immigrant visa cases pending at the National Visa Center, ready for interviews.  Thirteen months later, in February 2021, there were 473,000.  Please note that this number is not inclusive; it does not include cases already at embassies and consulates that have not yet been interviewed, or applicants who are still gathering the needed documents before they can interview, or petitions awaiting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, approval.  Our priority in the visa office is reducing this backlog, all the while ensuring the safety of our staff and applicants and protecting our national security.  We will be transparent about our progress.

One caveat:  I can’t promise you that the numbers will decline month to month.  So many factors influence the number of appointments we can safely allot, especially the progression of the pandemic in different countries.  We expect this effort to take time.

There are three things immigrant visa applicants should keep in mind while they’re going through this process.  First, the fastest and easiest way for you to get the information you need is to regularly check the website of your closest U.S. embassy or consulate.  That is where the most up-to-date information about operations will always be, as well as information about the best way to get in touch with the embassy or consulate.

Second, please ensure the email address that we have on file for you is accurate.  That’s where we will always send instructions.  If you do not – if you do have a question and need to contact your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, please do so only once.  Include your case number so that we can find your case more efficiently.  While we are always open to answer your questions, multiple phone calls or emails about the same issue will slow down the process for everyone.

Finally, please come to your appointments prepared with the documents outlined on your appointment letter.  Just like with communications, using multiple appointments to present more information will slow down your visa processing as well as others.  Again, we’re looking to serve as many people as we safely can, and we’re grateful for your patience.

With that, Liz, I’m happy to take questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, Julie, for those helpful remarks.  I’m going to start by relaying a question that’s a little off-topic from the reason for your briefing today but which was one of the most common topics brought up in our incoming questions before the briefing, and that is whether you can provide any update on two things related to I visas, which are the type of visas that foreign correspondents use to work as journalists in the United States.  First relates to whether you have any news on when I visa appointments might be more available at embassies overseas, and the second question that was very frequent is whether you have any updates available on the proposed change to duration of status for holders of I visas once they arrive in the United States that was pending last fall.  Thank you.

MS STUFFT:  Great, thanks very much for that.  We do understand that this is an issue that’s on everyone’s minds, certainly those of you who are on this call, and we do want to address that.  Immigrant – so excuse me – I visa or journalist visa – category visas are being adjudicated in our posts overseas as they have capacity to do so.  Again, I would refer everyone to the embassy or consulate website to check to see if they are adjudicating, but yes, as capacity allows, our consular sections will be adjudicating journalist visas.

With regard to the duration of status part of this, which I know is also on everyone’s mind, as you said, we refer you to DHS for that.  We don’t have any updates on the status of that policy.

MODERATOR:  Okay, thanks for that.  Let me turn to one of the other pre-submitted questions.  We had a question about Presidential Proclamation 10014, entitled “Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Present a Risk to the United States Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the 2019 Novel Corona Outbreak,” was rescinded on February 24th, 2021.  Individuals whose DV-2020 visas have expired may not be issued replacement visas according to the Department of State.  However, individuals who received diversity visas in 2020 as a result of orders in the court case Gomez v. Trump may travel to the United States on an expired visa.  But some airlines are denied – denying boarding.  How does the Department of State coordinate with airlines?

MS STUFFT:  Mm-hmm.  Thank you.  We do coordinate closely with airlines with regard to visa categories that are able to travel.  And as you noted, for the DV-2020 there were – there was a policy initiated by the Secretary to allow those 2020 visa holders to travel to the United States.  We are not aware at State of any problems with boarding planes by those individuals, but DHS – we’d refer you to DHS for more information on the interface with the airlines.

MODERATOR:  Thanks.  And now let’s go to a live question. We have a question from Dimitry Kirsanov from TASS.

QUESTION:  Good morning.  Can you hear me okay?

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can.

MS STUFFT:  Good morning.  Hi.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Madam Secretaries, thank you so much for doing this, and thanks a lot to our colleagues at the FPC for arranging this.  My question is very narrow, I hope, and country-specific, and it’s about nonimmigrant visas, again, I-type.  The current I-type visas issued to Russian journalists have a validity period of 12 months, and the maximum validity period is currently, as far as I understand, five years, 60-months.  So is there any chance the U.S. might extend the duration of I-type visas for Russian reporters?  That’s my question.

And a small point, if I may:  We did ask about those proposed DS changes.  We queried the DHS.  We never got any response from them.  So if you could just push them a bit or follow up with them, we would greatly appreciate.  Thank you.

MS STUFFT:  Mm-hmm.  Thank you very much for that question.  I think that we’ll take that so we can get you a robust answer.

MODERATOR:  All right, thanks, Julie.  We’ll get back to you, Dimitry.  Next I see a question from Philippe Rater from AFP.  Philippe, can you unmute yourself and go ahead?

QUESTION:  Yes, hello.  Thank you for this briefing.  I am correspondent at UN, and so I have a visa I.  My wife living with me is not journalist.  She is not allowed to work in U.S.  She has also the same visa.  Since last summer when we have to go to France, we are obliged to get (inaudible) consulate in Paris to be able to come back at New York.  For me, it’s not too difficult because I’m working.  But for my wife, especially if she travels alone, there is a big risk for our point of view for her to not get an NIE and be stuck in France without the possibility to come back at home in New York.  Do you plan to facilitate my and her return next time we are going to France?  Thank you.

MS STUFFT:  Thanks for that question.  I would ask too that we be able to take that question to respond to your specific points.

QUESTION:  Okay.

MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Okay, next I see Katerina Sokou.  Katerina, would you please go ahead and let us know what outlet you work for, please?

QUESTION:  Thank you, and thank you for doing this briefing.  I work for Greek daily Kathimerini and Skai TV.  My question is on – if I understand right on the current H-1B restrictions that were imposed by the Trump administration, these are set to expire on March 31st.  And I understand that the Biden administration does not plan to renew them.  Is that correct?

And if I may just add here, the current H-1B restrictions apply also to someone who had actually had the H-1B for years and just made the visa for their passport to come back to the States.  Is that something that you’re going to address as well?

MS STUFFT:  Thank you very much for that question.  I will refer you to the White House to – for any questions on Proclamation 10052, which I think you’re referring to there.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Okay, next I see a question in the chat, which I will read.  It is from Kishor Panthi from ABC TV:  “There are just seven months to issue diversity visas for the 2021 winners.  Judge Amit P. Mehta of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the U.S. Department of State to preserve 9,095 visas for 2020 Diversity Visa Lottery winners that have been unable to complete their applications due to an executive order issued by President Trump.  How do you manage the resources to issue those visas?  Do you have enough resources for that?”

MS STUFFT:  Thanks very much for that.  I first want to emphasize that I don’t – I won’t comment on pending litigation, but I can address the issue of DV-2021 cases which are currently being scheduled at all of our embassies and consulates overseas that have the capacity to process those.  So our posts are going forward as they can with adjudicating 20 – DV-2021.  Obviously, always we’re emphasizing the importance of health and safety, both for our personnel and for our applicants coming in, so that’s always going to be paramount in how those local conditions are considered for capacity.  But we are doing DV-2021.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next question is from Mushfiqul Sazal – Fazal, sorry, from Just News.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you for this briefing.  Yeah, may know – I’m just asking question on particular on Bangladesh, because recently we heard that the B1/B2 especially, the visitor visa, is not issuing I can guess for this pandemic.  But before the pandemic, people are – who are applying, I got some information that is B1/B2 decline ratio is higher.  So is there any particular reason for this?

MS STUFFT:  Thank you for the question.  I don’t know exactly what our posture is right now at Embassy Dhaka, but I would refer you back to the website.  Our posts are committed to making sure that our – their websites are up to date, and that is the most up-to-date information about the current posture of who’s being interviewed currently.

So with regard to nonimmigrant visas or, or course, immigrant visas, which are a priority, that’s going to be laid out on the website, sir.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  I’m going to read another one of the pre-submitted questions.  And that was:  “What specific steps will embassies have to take to inform beneficiaries of IVs, or immigrant visas, that will allow for the beneficiaries to be pandemic travel-ready?  For example, vaccines, PCRs, or travel within the visa’s timeframe or deadline.”

MS STUFFT:  Thank you very much.  That’s a great question.  We don’t have any updates at this time on new steps for immigrant visa processing.  So the current steps as laid out online and given to applicants by email are – still stand.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  And online, I – here in the chat, I’ve been contacted by Razi Canikligil.  Sorry if I didn’t pronounce that correctly.  Razi, if you have a question, please, go ahead and let us know your – the name of your outlet.

QUESTION:  Yeah, hi.  Hi, my name is Razi Canikligil and I’m from Hurriyet, Turkish daily.  And I don’t know if – my camera is not working, I guess.  Anyway, my —

MODERATOR:  That’s okay.  We can hear you loud and clear.

QUESTION:  All right.  Very good.  So the question is about family separation.  Something came to my attention, one of our readers.  And she has a B1/B2 visa and tried to enter the U.S. at the Miami airport, but she denied entry.  But her daughter is 16 years old and she’s a U.S. citizen and she’s attending high school in Miami and she was alone, and she didn’t have anyone with her, because this person without a B1/B2 visa holder, she’s doing like some kind of business between the Turkey and the U.S., textile business, she travels a lot.

And because she was – because her daughter was born in the U.S., she wanted her to get U.S. education.  But now she is – she denied entry and her visa is canceled and she doesn’t have any access to her daughter.  And during the pandemic and – she sent back on the same flight, and because the consulates are closed in Turkey, she doesn’t know what to do.  She tried to reach them; nobody get back to her, so she sent me a letter about this family separation issue.

I really don’t know about that detail.  I know it’s about the Mexican border.  I think – I’m not sure if it’s related to Europeans or other – in other countries.  So this is obviously minor girl, and she left alone during the pandemic, and her mom – she’s a single mom, and she’s desperate now, and she doesn’t know what to do.  And she approached it to me, and I thought this is a good platform to ask what to do about this.

Is there like, a law that is – unites mother and daughter?  Is it only for the Mexican border?

MS STUFFT:  Thank you very much, Razi, for that question.  We – there are a couple reasons that obviously I can’t respond directly to this case.  I’m not familiar with the details and we have visa confidentiality restrictions.  But I would advise your reader to contact either DHS or State, including the local embassy or consulate that issued the visa that she traveled on, to find out what happened in her case.  We should – we have staff who can certainly clarify the issue for her.

QUESTION:  That’s the thing.  They couldn’t reach anyone.  That’s why they send me a letter, a long letter I might forward to you.  I mean, I didn’t know what to tell them, so that is —

MS STUFFT:  If you wouldn’t mind sending that to the Foreign Press Center, we can certainly send it to our public inquiries unit.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you so much.  Is there any news timetable for visa departments to open in Ankara or Istanbul, any timetable?

MS STUFFT:  No.  It’s a great question.  We obviously would like to go back to full operations as soon as possible, but we are completely restricted based on health of safety of our employees locally and of our applicants coming in the section, as I said.  So every post worldwide is analyzing, based on their own local data, when they can safely reopen and how many people they can have come into the embassy.  So it really does differ by each post.  But I can tell you that as soon as it’s safe, our teams will be resuming operations, phasing in operations as according to the prioritization that’s online.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.

MS STUFFT:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Well, thank you, Julie, and I know you only had about a half hour available for us today, so I will just put out a last call for any questions about immigrant visas, which is Assistant – Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Stufft’s area of expertise.  And I really want to thank you.  As you can tell, visas are very important topics for all of our attendees today, and the human element of the State Department’s work facilitating travel is so important.  So it’s wonderful that you could be here with us.

Any – I see we still have two questions.  I’ll just go ahead and call on Mushfiqul Fazal from Just News, and then we’ll wrap it up.  This will be the last question.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you for taking my question again.  So can I ask any question about a visa restriction?  I’m not sure it is – the deputy assistant secretary will be able to answer this because the – we saw in Myanmar on that – for the – many of the army general or – the U.S. restricted visa.

So we – so if I can ask about Bangladesh, because many people, particularly law enforces agency, they are involved in extrajudicial killing and the – so I think the – you are following – closely following the situation what’s going on in Bangladesh.  So can we expect anything on Bangladesh, those who are involved in extrajudicial killing, to restrict the visa?  So I’m not sure that this is the right platform to answer this question.

MS STUFFT:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate the question.  We’ll take that for you and get back to you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  We’ll make sure to follow up with all the people whose questions were taken, and with this, I’d like to conclude the briefing.  I thank Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Stufft again for your participation.  I thank you all for your very interesting questions.  And I will follow up by sending out the transcript when it’s available, and the video of this briefing will be posted.

Thank you all so much.  Goodbye.  Have a great day.

MS STUFFT:  Thank you very much.

U.S. Department of State

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