Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

Two summers ago, before my sons entered high school, we took a family trip to Italy. It seemed like the perfect time – my sons were old enough to appreciate the trip but not so busy they could not go.

I could never have imagined then how grateful I’d be now to have taken that opportunity to travel.

With the pandemic, few people are traveling. However, around 90% of my client and potential client conversations involve travel. Specifically, traveling – or not traveling – to keep clients in compliance with their visas.

The U.S. immigration system has always been something of an obstacle course.

Recent developments have made it more like an intricate labyrinth with detours, hidden delays, and dead ends if you are not careful.

We are monitoring these changes closely to help you navigate your way through.

Here are some recent developments and how they are affecting visa compliance and processing.

USCIS Claims Budget Crisis

USCIS is a fee-driven agency. Fees pay 96% of its operating costs. They claim the coronavirus has caused a devasting budget shortfall.

For four months they threatened to furlough 13,000 of their 20,000 employees.

Ironically, a congressional inquiry showed USCIS had a surplus for the fiscal year.

At the end of August, Joseph Edlow, Deputy Director for policy at USCIS, said they would avoid the furlough but institute other cost-cutting measures. As a result, backlogs and wait times would increase.

I don’t buy the budget crisis claim. While things did slow down for a couple of months at the beginning of the pandemic, the number of cases has rebounded to close to pre-pandemic levels.

Moreover, USCIS is set to impose a fee rate hike next month that it began planning last November. While on average the hike is a 21% increase, some fees are rising much more. The cost of a naturalization application is going from $725 to $1170, a 62% increase.

The number of cases usually rises before a fee increase, so they are likely rising now.

But the backlogs and delays are likely our reality for now.

COVID-Related Country Restrictions Extended Through December 2020

Health-related restrictions requiring American citizens and legal permanent residents who have traveled to certain countries to re-enter the U.S. through one of 15 specific airports have been extended through December 31, 2020.

These countries include China, Iran, Ireland, the U.K., Brazil and the Schengen area, which covers 26 European countries.

A presidential proclamation that bans residents of those countries from entering the U.S. has also been extended through December 31, 2020. The president made this proclamation on the assumption that these people would compete for jobs that Americans would take given the economic strife in the country.

The ban includes a national interest waiver which makes exceptions for medical professionals supporting the effort to combat COVID-19, spouses of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and a few other select groups.

This breaks my heart.

It has meant that I have had to tell European clients who have received their L visa approvals that they can’t come until at least January.

I’ve also had to tell clients who wanted to return home to visit their families in banned countries not to go. Leaving the U.S. would mean that your visa would not be reinstated and you could not get back into the country.

While this part of my job is not fun, it is necessary to help clients remain in compliance and avoid getting stranded.

Creative Solutions Help and Change Frequently

Among the creative solutions we have been devising for clients is alternate travel routes to establish 14 days presence in a non-banned location.

Ireland was an option early in the pandemic.

Recently these diversions have included Croatia, Serbia and the Bahamas.

The Bahamas has been so flooded with people that on September 1 they instituted new travel requirements that include proof of a negative COVID test within 5 days of arrival, an approved Bahamas health visa and mandatory “vacation in place” orders for up to the first 14 days there.

Mexico is still an alternate route option for now, but their U.S. embassy is one of the busiest in the world. With a decreased staff, travelers who qualify for exceptions find appointments take longer to get or are sometimes cancelled.

We monitor daily which countries allow quarantine and can act as a U.S. gateway.

A Realistic View Going Forward

With COVID-19 risk driving these restrictions, it is hard to know what the future holds. The U.S. has not done a great job of containing the virus.

Australia has struggled to control COVID-19 as well. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signaled that their borders may remain closed until July 2021.

It is likely that some of our current restrictions – at least the health-related ones – may be extended into 2021 as well.

I know this means I may have to continue delivering unwelcome news about travel and visa processing delays. Clients may have to delay further trips to see family or to start jobs in the U.S.

We are keeping tabs on the situation and will do everything we can to help you.

If you have any questions, please call me at 630-262-1435.