Visiting Family Abroad Has Become a Glitchy Government Nightmare for Some Immigrants
“It seems like I’m trapped in this country,” Mr. Singh told me, recounting how he contemplated leaving the United States to help his sister. But if he were to go to India to visit his family, he would risk losing the life he had built in America. Singh has lived in the United States since 2007, arriving first as a graduate computer engineering student, then as a software developer working in cloud computing. Despite those fifteen years studying and working, he has yet to receive permanent residency (a “green card”) because U.S. law prevents immigrants from any one country from receiving more than 7 percent of the available green cards allotted each year. And due to mountains of red tape and discord within the State Department, if Singh were to leave the country, he might have to wait months to return, losing his place in the green card line.
As Singh continues to wait for his green card, his temporary status requires him to get his visa renewed at a consular office in India before he can return home from traveling abroad. Confusingly, this is a separate process from him extending his ability to stay from inside the United States, which involves different documents and doesn’t require stopping at a consulate.
The requirement of getting your visa reissued from abroad has long been a time-consuming inconvenience for immigrants. But as with so much else, COVID-19 has made things worse: With consular offices still at reduced capacity two years into the pandemic, this rule turned this mere bureaucratic headache into a measure that forced countless workers and students to choose between their obligations in the United States and those back in their home country.
Singh’s sister was hospitalized with COVID-19 during India’s surge in the summer of 2021. With no ambulance service available and nobody present to drive her, she had to call a cab to take herself to the medical facility that was an hour and a half away. Because her husband was also hospitalized, the kids were being cared for by their grandmother. “I wanted to help them when they were sick,” Singh said. “I worried that they would die, and I wouldn’t be able to see them.”
With consulates reopening at a snail’s pace, people have been waiting over six months to schedule an appointment—when one can be found to schedule any appointment at all. As of January 2022, a quarter of consulates were still completely or partially closed. Offices that have partially reopened limit their services for “emergency cases.” But what constitutes an emergency apparently varies for each embassy. According to one work visa holder, Ashkhen Kazaryan, the U.S. embassy in Armenia told her that her father’s death wasn’t an emergency because it was her choice to leave the United States to be with her family.
Kazaryan has lived in the United States for seven years, arriving on a student visa, then switching to a status for skilled guest workers. In 2020, she successfully adjusted her status again, this time to a worker with “extraordinary ability.” Though she received new documents to work and stay in the country, the pandemic prevented her from traveling to the embassy and receiving the corresponding visa that allowed her to legally re-enter the United States. Then, her father unexpectedly died. “I was very well aware that I might not be able to come back—ever,” she said, recounting her decision to return home to mourn her father’s passing.
After the funeral, Kazaryan attempted to get an appointment from ten different embassies. Though she is from Russia, it became common practice during the pandemic to seek appointments from third-country embassies if your home country’s was unavailable. The embassies had different responses to Kazaryan’s request for an appointment. While some denied her because she wasn’t from the corresponding country, the U.S. embassy in Croatia took $200 from her before revoking her appointment for not being Croatian. The U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan also forced her to pay $200 before delivering the news that it had no slots available.
After finally receiving an appointment in Mexico, Kazaryan booked a flight. Because all available flights to Mexico were connected to Europe, she was forced to quarantine for two weeks due to the EU travel ban. Throughout her stay, she feared that the embassy would cancel the appointment. Thankfully, she successfully received her new visa and returned to the United States after three months. “I didn’t have time to grieve or process,” she said. “I had to make sure that the seven years, a graduate degree, and the career I’ve built didn’t all disappear.”
Late last year, the State Department finally decided to expand its interview waivers for anybody who has entered the United States on a temporary visa and has maintained legal status. While this development will help future people in Kazaryan’s situation, many still face other choke points.
Singh, for instance, was already eligible for interview waivers that the agency granted earlier in the pandemic. But the waivers made little difference because the Indian embassy required that he and other Indian applicants schedule appointments just to drop off their application documents in the consulate “drop box.” Most other embassies require no appointment for such a thing.
Singh quickly discovered that drop box appointments were scarce. When he attempted to schedule an appointment to visit his ill sister, he noted that the State Department rarely had open appointment slots. And when it did, the website would often stop working. Another similarly situated immigrant—Mr. Bhatt, a product manager at a major tech firm—had the same complaints. “It [the website] was a nightmare,” he told me. “If you try to access the website more than four times in one day, your account gets locked for 72 hours.” Sometimes when an applicant tries to book an open appointment, the website “errors out,” and additional attempts to book the appointment count against the applicants’ login limit. Bhatt was locked out at least three times.
Overall, it took Bhatt two and a half months to land an appointment. Bhatt originally sought to visit India in October, to celebrate Diwali with his family. When that didn’t work, he unsuccessfully tried to land an appointment to visit during Christmas and New Year’s. Bhatt was also needed to care for his father after his eye surgery, which ended up being postponed until Bhatt could schedule a drop box appointment.
To snag an appointment, Bhatt joined a Telegram group of over 80,000 other Indian visa holders suffering from the State Department’s hostile website interface. Though they were competing for open appointments, the website’s four-login limit made cooperation essential, and people would regularly notify the group of open appointments. Bhatt would set an alarm to regularly check the Telegram group, frequently staying up past 2:00 a.m. to see if an appointment opened up.
After having obtained an appointment just before the new year, Bhatt is now set to travel to the consular office in Bangalore to submit his documents. Because the office in New Delhi, where his family lives, wasn’t available, he’ll need to fly three hours after submitting his documents and pay roughly $100. “We’re all so frustrated that money doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “But for somebody with a family of three or four, the flight cost could be around $600-$800.”
According to immigration attorney James Hollis, the drop box appointments were implemented to control demand and prevent major backlogs. He notes that while this measure did help consulates achieve a two-week turnaround for revalidating visas, it would make far more sense for the U.S. government to lift validity requirements for those whose visas expired a year ago. “U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the authority to waive requirements for valid travel documents during unforeseen emergencies,” Hollis told me. He notes that CBP used this authority in March 2021 to help Venezuelans.
At the end of December, the Indian embassy issued 20,000 additional drop box appointments. “This could help a little,” Hollis said, although it was really just a “drop in the bucket”—since there are hundreds of thousands of visa holders in the United States.
But several weeks later, the Indian embassy announced it will no longer accept new drop box appointments for international students, a decision that will hurt thousands of Indian students who need to get back to class—some of whom left because of family emergencies. Meanwhile, the State Department is keeping over 400,000 green card applicants with pending interviews in limbo. Some estimates suggest that it will take roughly four years for the agency to get the pending caseload back to pre-COVID levels.
Much of the recent public commentary around immigration has focused on how such regulatory burdens undermine immigrants’ ability to contribute and innovate. But we must remember that this red tape also prevents these people from being fully engaged with their own lives and meaningfully present in the lives of others. If America is no longer a place where people feel empowered to be the best versions of themselves as they celebrate, struggle, and grieve, it ceases not just being the land of opportunity, but also the land of dignity and purpose.