Should the ban be removed, consulates would be directed to resume visa processing. But visa issuance data and the State Department’s recent assessments of consular operations suggest that consulates remain ill-equipped to process visas.
Last month, a State Department official told a federal court that many consulates were “extremely short-staffed” and struggling to schedule the in-person interviews that U.S. visa regulations require of all adult applicants. During the pandemic, consulates have been directed to process visas for the small subset of immigrants who were not banned — mainly the spouses and children of U.S. citizens — but they have worked on only a small fraction of those visas, issuing them at about a third the rate as before the pandemic, according to State Department data.
Immigrant advocates say the Trump administration appears to have engineered a deliberate slowdown, and there is evidence that emergency resources were diverted away from visa processing. But State Department officials and former consular officers said consulates faced legitimate challenges caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.
In-person visa interviews, which are used to screen for fraud and security threats, are typically conducted by diplomats working side-by-side in offices sealed off behind bulletproof windows. Chris Richardson, a former consular officer who is an immigration lawyer, recalled the consular section in Lagos, Nigeria, as a poorly ventilated space where the coronavirus could easily spread. “A full consular section — I couldn’t even imagine,” he said.
During the pandemic, consulates have put into place public health precautions, including physical distancing in waiting rooms and fewer interviews at a time. “These necessary safeguards have temporarily reduced the visa processing capacity at many of our posts,” a State Department official speaking for the department said.
The timing of when consular services abroad can resume normal operations depends on a number of “local conditions” under the pandemic, the official said, including the number of Covid-19 cases, emergency response capabilities, commercial flight availability and local travel restrictions.
“We are working to return to normal staffing levels and to pre-pandemic visa workload levels at all of our posts worldwide as quickly as possible, while protecting the health and safety of our work force and customers,” the State Department official said.
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