When the pandemic forced her children’s school and day care to close, Luwam Beyene started working nights so she could be home during the day. As soon as she gets home, she makes breakfast and gets her son ready for online school. The children have her attention until she leaves again for work in the evenings.
“I don’t even take a nap,” said Ms. Beyene, 29, who works as a caregiver in San Francisco. “My life is falling apart. My only hope is if my husband can come.”
Ms. Beyene’s husband is in Ethiopia waiting for an immigrant visa, a process that even before the coronavirus pandemic often took upward of two years for the spouse of a permanent U.S. resident. He was near the finish line, awaiting only an in-person interview with a consular officer, when the pandemic temporarily shut down U.S. consulates last spring. “They froze everything and we never heard from them again,” Ms. Beyene said.
U.S. consulates issue about half a million immigrant visas per year, most of them to the spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In April, former President Donald J. Trump signed a proclamation suspending most legal immigration — with exceptions for a few privileged categories — under the guise of protecting American jobs.
Now President Biden has pledged to open the country’s doors once again, signaling that he will lift constraints on refugees, foreign workers and asylum applicants. But the ban, along with staffing shortages at U.S. consulates around the world and logistical challenges related to the pandemic, has left hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible people like Ms. Beyene’s husband waiting in limbo — a backlog that immigration experts warn could burden the system for years.
Luwam Beyene’s husband is in Ethiopia waiting for an immigrant visa.
A State Department official said in federal court last month that, as of Dec. 31, more than 380,000 immigrant visa applicants were awaiting a consular interview. Immigration experts said it would take up to a year under normal circumstances to work through that many applications.
On a call with reporters this week about Mr. Biden’s latest executive orders on immigration, senior administration officials declined to say when the proclamations barring entry might be lifted, noting that it would take time to review policies of his predecessor.
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.
The backlog will keep growing, immigration experts said, until the new administration removes the immigration ban and figures out how to adjudicate visas in places where there is are many Covid-19 cases. Even then, former consular officers warn, staff shortages, a budget shortfall and hiring limitations mean the backlog could take years to eliminate.
When fully staffed, many consulates have one or two officers who adjudicate immigrant visas, generally enough to lag just a little behind demand, but nowhere near what will be needed to cut into the backlog while also keeping up with new applications. “There’s only so much they can do,” said Brett Bruen, a former consular officer and member of the Obama administration’s National Security Council. “Immigrant visas take time.”
An inevitable bottleneck in the system could be worsened by staff shortages resulting from attrition during the Trump years and a recent hiring freeze. The American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, recently sounded alarms over staff departures, warning that management biases and lack of opportunities were pushing employees out of the Foreign Service. In June, The New York Times reported that a number of Black diplomats quit after facing discrimination. Others resigned in response to Trump administration policies.
Sarah Gardiner, a former consular officer who is policy director at Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit group that advocates alternatives to immigration detention, resigned from the Foreign Service in 2017 rather than have to put in place what is often referred to as the “Muslim ban.”
Looking back, Ms. Gardiner said there were inflection points in Mr. Trump’s presidency — his response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.; his derisive comments about immigrants — that drove diplomats to leave the Foreign Service. “I worried that if I stayed, I would be in positions where I’d be transgressing my moral hard lines,” Ms. Gardiner said.
Over the past four years, the Foreign Service and Civil Service lost a combined 408 employees who were posted abroad, roughly 4.5 percent of the State Department’s overseas work force, according to the department’s Bureau of Human Resources. “A lot of those roles would be consular,” Mr. Bruen said. “That’s going to be felt.”
On top of the staffing shortage, consulates face a budget crisis. Consular operations are funded by fees collected to process visas — including tourism and other nonimmigrant visas — which total about $3.5 billion per year. As a result of the pandemic, State Department officials anticipated losses of about $1.4 billion in 2020 and continued losses through at least 2022.
Even if Congress were to allocate emergency funding, a hiring surge would not be felt immediately. “It takes an extraordinary amount of time to bring new officers on board,” Mr. Bruen said. With limited exceptions, he said, it takes about two years for new diplomats to pass the foreign service exam and complete the required training and security clearance. “I think that backlog is going to be with us for a while.”
Bruce Morrison, a former congressman from Connecticut who wrote the country’s last major immigration reform, in 1990, described the backlog and the situation at consulates as a “collapse of the system.”
Before the pandemic, the spouses of U.S. citizens, who are among the immigration system’s most prioritized visa applicants, generally waited 11 to 17 months for a visa, according to Boundless, a Seattle-based immigration services company. Immigration experts and former consular officers said they expected the current backlog to add at least a year to the process for new applicants. “It means the people starting the process right now are going to have to wait a really long time — much longer than in the past,” Mr. Richardson said.
To address the backlog, immigrant advocates are pushing for major changes to the visa adjudication process. First among their suggestions is to do away with the in-person interview, something other Western countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and many European countries, have done.
“The personal interview has taken on almost mythic status in the U.S. visa process,” Bethany Milton, a former Foreign Service officer, wrote in an opinion piece last year, arguing that the requirement has become a hindrance. “It is increasingly difficult to justify in a digital age,” she wrote.
Advocates and former consular officers have suggested that remote interviews could be offered to all immigrant visa applicants, and that interviews could be waived for certain immigrant categories where fraud is uncommon, such as people over age 65, or for specific individuals at the discretion of the consular officer.
But the State Department official said there was a reason face-to-face contact was required. “Consular officers are trained to examine all available information,” the official said, including the applicant’s body language and their choice of words, which the officer uses to evaluate potential risks to national security.
For some of the families left in limbo, the impact of long separations can never be undone. When Ms. Beyene arrived in the United States from Eritrea with her 1-year-old son in 2017, she had dreams of going to nursing school and renting an apartment to share with her family.
Four years on, she is still living as a single parent, sharing a bedroom with her children and working nights to make ends meet. In 2018, Ms. Beyene, who is a permanent U.S. resident, gave birth to a daughter alone in a San Francisco hospital. Her children are now 2 and 5.
“I wanted my husband there for our babies’ growth,” she said. For now, the family continues to wait. “When we go to the park or I drop my son off at school, he sees kids with their fathers and asks me when his dad will come home,” Ms. Beyene said. “I can see in his eyes how sad he is and I feel powerless.”
Miriam Jordan contributed reporting.