THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this Washington Foreign Press Center briefing. My name is Doris Robinson and I am the briefing moderator. Today’s briefing is an update on visa services, and as a reminder, this briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript on the FPC website after the briefing at fpc.state.gov. We ask that you keep your microphones muted until you’re called on for a question.
And now I’m pleased to introduce our briefer. Julie Stufft is the deputy assistant secretary for visa services with the Bureau of Consular Affairs with the State Department. She will start with some opening remarks and then we will open for questions. With that, over to you, Deputy Assistant Secretary.
MS STUFFT: Doris, thank you so much. Hello, everyone. Thank you to the Foreign Press Center for the invitation to be with you today, and to all the journalists on the line, thank you for dialing in. It’s really a pleasure for me to talk to you about the State Department’s progress toward improving our visa processing worldwide.
I’ll say this up front: The bottom line is that we’re recovering faster than we projected after a near-complete shutdown and freezing of our consular operations overseas during the pandemic. But this progress is still uneven across many of our posts overseas, and we’ll need some additional time and tools to resolve wait times everywhere worldwide, which is our goal.
Let me tell you where we are right now. First, we’ve met demand and even exceeded pre-pandemic visa levels for some key categories of travelers. A few examples of that are that we’ve processed more temporary worker visas this summer, including for agricultural workers, than any prior year on record at the State Department. Also this summer we exceeded student visa adjudications for – before any other year other than six years ago, I think, was the last record that had gotten as high as we are now. So we’ve adjudicated more visas this year than in the past six years.
We’re very happy that we’ve been able to concentrate on these key categories of traveler so that we can move them through to travel to the United States, and in general, like I said, we are returning to pre-pandemic visa levels for all categories faster than projected. Let me give you some examples of numbers on that. Our posts overseas this year have adjudicated about 70 percent more nonimmigrant visas than last year. Each month we do about 800,000 nonimmigrant visa applications at posts overseas. That’s about 80 percent or a little bit more of pre-pandemic levels, and that is growing steadily. At the same time, immigrant visa processing is almost back to normal levels, with the pre-pandemic backlogs down 25 percent and adjudications for immigrant visas at about 95 percent overseas.
We’re really pleased that we’ve made that kind of progress, and there are a few reasons that I can give for why we’ve been able to do that this year. One is that we have some new authorities called interview waiver authorities that we’ve worked with the Department of Homeland Security to do and to authorize, so the consular officers overseas can waive in-person interviews for a number of key visa categories, always maintaining national security as our highest priority. The types of visas where interviews can be waived include temporary agricultural workers and many applicants who have previously traveled to the United States in any capacity, not just the category for which they are currently applying. By applying these authorities to waive interviews, we’ve reduced wait times at many embassies and consulates considerably. Right now the wait time for routine visa appointment at half of our overseas posts is less than four months and at some posts is actually far, far shorter than that.
Finally, I’ll mention staffing. The department is actively engaged in increasing the number of consular officers who are overseas adjudicating visas. We’ve doubled consular officer hiring this year from last year, and we have a growing team of experienced adjudicators who are supporting high-demand posts by remotely adjudicating visa cases. And that lets posts overseas have more time to interview applicants who must come in in person.
Even as we bounce back from the pandemic backlogs and pent-up demand on visas, we do recognize that some applicants may still face extended visa interview wait times if you don’t fit into categories mentioned. For that I just want to make two suggestions. One, we have robust processes at all posts to expedite cases if needed. Business travel, urgent humanitarian or medical travel can always request an expedited visa appointment by contacting the embassy or consulate where the applicant needs to apply. Information on how to expedite a visa appointment is available on every website. You may have to make an appointment before seeking an expedited appointment. We’ve found that this process works very well and that it’s quickly able to manage travelers who have urgent travel.
Second, I want to say that we at the State Department are viewing visa workload globally, and that means that applicants can apply anywhere in the world where there’s an appointment available. So if an applicant is in a country with a long wait time, that applicant go to another post. We realize this is not an ideal scenario for everyone, but I do mention it because applicants can truly apply anywhere that an appointment is available, and this has really been successful for thousands of visa applicants this year.
I want to just end my remarks by saying that we are committed to reducing visa wait times to a reasonable level at all posts overseas. We have more work to do, and we are going to commit to updating you as we do that, and I look forward to your questions. Happy to take those now. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Deputy Assistant Secretary. We will now move to the question and answer session. For journalists that are interested in asking a question, please click the raised hand icon at the bottom of the screen. And when I call on you, please state your name and your media outlet and turn on your camera. And I see we have several hands raised. I did want to add a point that our briefer is not able to ask questions – answer questions of a personal nature due to confidentiality reasons.
So we will start with – let’s go to – I see that he raised his hand. Actually, I will take a question that was submitted earlier from a reporter that is unable to attend. This question is from Dmitry Anapocheko from InterTV, Ukraine. He’s interested in knowing: “Any plans to restore normal consular activity at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine?”
MS STUFFT: Thank you for that question. We don’t have any updates at this time on visa operations in Ukraine. But I do want to say that Ukrainian applicants can go anywhere in the region and in the world, and they’ll be seen as quickly as any visa applicant there. We’ve had a lot of applicants, Ukrainian applicants, who have found it as easy as possible to go to neighboring posts, and even very far-flung posts will accommodate them anywhere. So while we wait for that day, we encourage you to go ahead and apply to different post.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Sandra Muller. Sandra, can you turn on your camera and ask your question?
QUESTION: Hello. I’m Sandra Muller. I’m a French journalist from La Lettre de L’Audiovisuel. I just had two question. The first one: You told that you had doubled the number of workers. My question was: How many people did you hire?
And my second question, it’s (inaudible) interesting – it’s because some people, they go to some other country to get their visa. Do you maybe a recommendation about the country it will be easier to apply than another country? I heard for French zone and Francophone – I heard about (inaudible) and Belgium or, like – but do you have a kind of list? Maybe it will be useful for people who have to apply. Thank you so much.
MS STUFFT: Thank you, Sandra. On your first question, you were asking about – are you asking about State Department hiring or temporary worker numbers?
QUESTION: Oh, no, sorry, it was about State Department.
MS STUFFT: Oh, okay. I can’t get into specifics on that, unfortunately, because it’s a personnel matter. But I can tell you that we are looking to get to pre-pandemic hiring levels in the next —
MS STUFFT: On the second question you had about which posts might be able to accommodate, yeah, it does change – that’s a great question. It does change depending on what’s happening in every post. But travel.state.gov, our website, has a really good way to check wait times in different categories at every post worldwide. So I would just encourage anybody who’s interested in maybe traveling for a visa appointment to check that site.
QUESTION: Maybe – sorry – a third question. If there is a mistake on the file – not me; everything’s okay. Don’t worry; I’m not going to bother you. Next year, maybe, but not this year. I know some people there is some mistake or something. Is there a special, I don’t know, website, or, like, not complaining, but hey, there is a – I should have a two-year visa; a 10-year visa, I just have two years. Is there special stuff to do, a special – like dedicated website or part or service?
MS STUFFT: Yeah, I’m not familiar with the specific scenario that you’re outlining, Sandra, but I would say that either you can check back with us specifically or check with the consulate or embassy where that visa’s adjudicated to find out what happened if there’s a mistake.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay, thank you so much. Have a good day. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Sandra. Our next question goes to Alex Raufoglu. Alex, go ahead with your question.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you so much for doing this. I appreciate the opportunity. (Inaudible) two quick questions. One is on – you mentioned that more broadly, of course, that you’re reducing visa appointment time – wait times – in all visa classes. Immigrant visa processing worldwide is almost back down, you mentioned, to normal levels. Do you have any number to that, like with pandemic-induced backlog and also interview wait times? I know it might be – vary by location and by categories, but if you could please provide with more numbers on that, that would be extremely helpful.
And secondly, this might be a little bit, like, last-minute question, but let me get your reaction with respect to the headline that comes out of Ukrainian state media today that Ukrainian leaders are urging the G7 countries, including the U.S., of course, to consider not issuing any visa – tourist visa to Russian citizens. Is this something that the State Department is entertaining at this point? Thank you so much again.
MS STUFFT: Thank you, Alex. On your first question, I know that that is information that we’ve given previously, our reduction in immigrant visa backlogs. That’s on travel.state.gov, but we might be able to circle back with you to clarify where that is online. Thank you for asking that. We have reduced our pandemic backlog of immigrant visas by more than 20 percent already, and we’re making a lot of headway on that.
As for your second question, no, there’s no restriction on Russian travelers. Russian travelers can actually go to any embassy in the world where they are able to apply, and we will see those and that’s happening every day.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Let’s take our next question from Daria with TASS. Daria, go ahead with your question.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, there’s a little feedback.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you for doing this briefing. My question is about Russia. Are there any updates regarding the context of Moscow with respect to issues to Russian diplomats? I think of the work of diplomatic missions in both countries and resuming visa services for Russian citizens in Moscow.
MS STUFFT: Thank you, Daria. I would just say again that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow is not currently processing either immigrant or nonimmigrant visas due to the Russian Government’s restrictions on embassy operations, but Russian citizens can schedule an appointment for any visa type anywhere in the world and are doing so regularly. So we welcome that.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Let’s take our next question from Muath Alamri. Muath, can you turn on your camera and ask your question?
QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. Yes, I have a very quick two questions. First, there are – some countries are facing the backlog and long processing. Do you take a political decision in having – issuing some visas in those countries or it’s just a system – a systematic procedure?
The second question is: Is there any update on the foreign media policy visas? Because we heard there – in a previous administration there was a change in that policy? Is that still or are you back before that administration? And you mentioned that anybody can apply for a visa in different location. Is it okay if there is no residence in that location for the applicant? And thank you so much, again, for doing this.
MS STUFFT: Thank you very much for those great questions. I would say on the first one, we are very careful about how we manage our appointment systems and our access to visa appointments when there is a long wait time. There are certain expedite channels that the embassy manages for key travelers or urgent needs of travel, like I said, to travel to the United States. And if you need one of those, that’s the best way is to contact the embassy and the consulate and find out how to do that.
On the question – let’s see, your second question was – can you remind me, Muath? Sorry.
QUESTION: Yeah, the second question was for the foreign media policy, there has been a change with the previous administration. Are you still using the same policy that the previous administration set or back to normal or do you have another waiver – another policy for the foreign media like the agriculture visas?
MS STUFFT: Yes, I don’t – I’m not aware of any change in our policy on journalists, but I will kick that back to Doris to make sure that we get you an answer. And then in terms of who can apply – your third question – who can apply for a – specifically for a nonimmigrant visa, you can do that in any place where the applicant is physically present. So if you’re in a location or you intend to go there, you can apply for that nonimmigrant visa appointment there. And that is absolutely happening worldwide as our embassies take on anybody from other consular districts or countries who need an appointment, if they have availability. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Mouctar Balde from Guinea News.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. My name is Mouctar Balde. I’m from Guinea. In Africa, where I’m from, the U.S. embassies are not issuing even 20 visas per days. There are countries where are – they are not issuing this. Is there any system of quotas per country? Because I’m not going to call it a discrimination, but when applicants come with – applicants who are really responding to all of the requirements of the State Department, they are – they tend them – they used to tend them a standard form, a printed form of letter saying that they’re not sure they’re going to come back.
And this is happening to businessmen. It’s happening to really applicants who are eligible, but for some reasons – I know particularly some African countries before this pandemic and even now, they’re not issuing them even 20 visas per day. It’s – at the same time, you have some countries – is – maybe in a broader term, the State – the State Department review this unjust, discriminatory tendency to give African countries just less visa. And it’s the same thing in Canada. I’m in Canada, actually. I’m a U.S. citizen born in Africa, but really, a few weeks ago in the Canadian media, it was like a problem that – saying that they issue more visas to people in China and India, but not Africans.
And another question – maybe I – excuse me; this one was too long – what you are doing to have for people in their 70s, 80s, grandparents to come to see their grandchildren in the United States? Those people are not yet – they are not coming here to get jobs. Thank you.
MS STUFFT: Thank you, Mouctar. Appreciate that question; certainly appreciate the difficulty that people would find themselves in. I think what you’re asking is about visa refusals, and that’s something that we look at very closely here in Washington. I’m not seeing any trend lines specifically that would lead to any discussion of mishandling. Certainly no quotas are in place for how many visas are issued. I know that our posts in Africa are working very hard to get out of the appointment backlog to make sure that they meet the demand. But I take your points on board, and we’ll make sure that posts are aware of that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I did receive the question earlier from Roj Salla from Rudaw TV, Iraq, and he had a question about: “What is happening with the DV lottery applications? Can you update us on that?”
MS STUFFT: Yes, of course. I think that he might be asking about specific interviews in – outside of Iraq. Is that right?
MODERATOR: I believe so.
MS STUFFT: Okay. We do understand, or I understand, that there is pending litigation on specific cases, and if that’s specifically what he’s asking about, I can’t discuss that because of the pending litigation. But in general, I’m really happy with what we’ve seen on the diversity visa program front this year. We’ve come back to full levels of adjudication, which were obviously very difficult to do during the pandemic. So obviously, we – the State Department is committed to adjudicating all of the Diversity Visa numbers that are given each year. Those numbers expire at the end of a fiscal year, which I think everyone understands. But we are committed to that program and very, very happy to see those numbers bouncing back this year.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And I see we have a question in the chat about the budget: “Has anything, COVID impacted the budget, anything impacted the budget?” Oh —
MS STUFFT: Sorry, I’m not seeing that one.
MODERATOR: Yes. It is from Oyiza Adaba with Africa Related – interested in knowing which of the approaches the State Department plans to adopt moving forward. Has it impacted the budgets?
MS STUFFT: Okay. We are fee-funded in the Consular Affairs Bureau for visas. So as we were able to adjudicate following the pandemic, our – I guess our fees have increased so our budget is increasing. I’m not sure that’s exactly what we’re getting to here, but maybe we could take that question and get more details.
MODERATOR: Absolutely. Thank you so much. And we’ll take our next question from Alexey Osipov.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. My question is regarding visa fee, why it’s not refundable and not transferable. For example, many Russian applicants paid $160 for the family – it’s already about a thousand dollar, but the consulate is closed – okay, we know the reason. We can’t – people are not able to receive money back, and they are not able to transfer that money, for example, to the U.S. consulate or embassy in Poland, in Kyrgyzstan, in Kazakhstan.
Yes, we understand that the fees (inaudible) it’s cover some expenses, but why it’s not refundable and not transferable? Sometimes you have to pay many times. For example, I catch the appointment in one country, then I found some fastest way in different location; again I have to pay 160, or for a family, for four people, it’s about a thousand dollar. Thank you.
MS STUFFT: Thank you, Alexey. I can just say on that that this is not a policy specific to Russian nationals, of course. I understand what you’re saying. I do want to point out that we have extended the fee availability for use for 2023 so that anyone who was not able to get an appointment during the pandemic months especially would be able to use that fee. But thank you for that question.
QUESTION: Yeah, but I can’t transfer it. For example, I paid in Moscow, but I found now the (inaudible) in Yerevan, Armenia or (inaudible) Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. I can’t take that money to the U.S. embassy but in a different location. Why?
MS STUFFT: Yeah, that is our regulation, and again, not specific to Russian citizens, of course. But I do take your point and it’s something that we discuss here frequently.
MODERATOR: Thank you. It looks like we have time for one last question. We’ll take a question from Mounzer Sleiman. Mounzer, can you go ahead and unmute yourself?
QUESTION: Yes. Can you hear me now?
QUESTION: Great. I know I’m going to comply with your request not to ask for personal question. I’m going to transfer it to be general question. For a husband that trying to get his wife as a petition, how long it will take to process that petition, knowing that that petition – particular petition or one petition, let’s say – is taking more than nine months and nobody giving anything?
The other question is related to it. Why a wife that – who has been awaiting, trying to get – while the petition is in process to get a visitor visa to visit her husband, why she cannot get a visa, a visitor visa, while the process for the petition taking its course? Thank you.
MS STUFFT: Thanks so much for that. This is – as you know, the immigration petition process is a multistep process involving multiple agencies. So the immigration petition that you’re discussing I think is probably pending with the Department of Homeland Security. I can’t speak for them, of course, but I know that they’re facing their own backlogs that they’re digging out of, and I assume that’s what the petition delay would be. But every timeline sort of depends on the unique circumstances of every case.
In terms of a visitor visa for someone who’s pending an immigrant visa, our worldwide policy is that that – that applicant is based on the merits of their nonimmigrant visa appointment. Many people with a pending immigrant petition are able to travel back and forth to the United States. I can’t speak to the – to your specific case, but that is something that it is not infrequent for someone to have a visitor visa while they wait.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. It looks like we are out of time. Deputy Assistant Secretary, did you have any closing remarks?
MS STUFFT: Thank you, Doris. I really not only appreciate this, but we get a lot out of it. We have many of my colleagues who are on the line listening to your questions. It helps us to inform our officers overseas and to help to improve these visa processes as we bounce back from the pandemic. We’re proud of the progress we’ve made, but we have a long way to go and we look forward to keeping in touch with you.
MODERATOR: Absolutely. And I would like to thank our journalists for participating today and for Deputy Assistant Secretary Stufft for taking the time to brief us today. And with that, this concludes today’s briefing. Thank you all.