The U.S. Visa Process Is a Disservice to Our Indian Allies
The current wait time for an appointment at the U.S. consulate in Delhi to obtain a U.S. visa is nearly three years for visitors and approximately one year for eligible workers. Conversely, there’s essentially no wait from Beijing across any visa type. India is one of the United States’ most critical allies—supporting not only the American economy through high-skilled immigration, students, tourism, and trade but also efforts to protect global democracy. Indians seeking opportunity in America deserve better treatment, and it’s time for the State Department to modernize visa processing.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained in a September 2022 press conference, the State Department processes visa applications through a self-financing model. More precisely, the money that the agency collects through visa fees directly funds the staff and operations to process incoming visa applications.
When international travel and immigration dropped precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did the State Department’s revenue from visa applications and thus the budget to maintain the capacity required to process new visas following the predictable increase in demand following the pandemic. Instead of taking advantage of the challenging circumstances caused by the pandemic to reevaluate its dependence on a vulnerable “fee-for-service” structure and explore how technology could improve resiliency in moments when staff capacity falls, the State Department stagnated and now faces near-insurmountable backlogs and unacceptable wait times for Indian applicants.
As it is, this backlog presents a real problem. In a typical year, Indians make up the largest group receiving H-1B visas, which are high-skilled temporary work visas that support American competitiveness in sectors such as finance, technology, and medicine. Additionally, Indians receive the highest number of U.S. student visas compared to any other country, with many of these students focusing on subjects in science and engineering. And as a strategic matter, it is arguably in U.S. national interests to prioritize Indian graduate students over Chinese students studying in the U.S. Lastly, Indian tourism contributes billions of dollars every year to the American economy.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is the crucial relationship between the United States and India—founded on shared commitments to democracy and rules-based international trade. This partnership is vital and necessary in a geopolitical climate where influential powers like Russia and China seemingly flout these principles.
Indian immigration to the United States has been foundational to maintaining this mutually beneficial partnership, and the United States cannot afford to sully this relationship through poor planning and an insulting treatment of Indian immigrants, students, and visitors. For example, many Indian H1-B visa holders working in the United States cannot leave the country if they need a renewal stamp because it is not feasible to obtain one in India. If they leave, they may not be able to return to the United States. As a result, many workers do not travel to India to visit family, including sick relatives or elderly parents.
While the current visa application is online, there are still numerous manual steps completed by different actors across the approval timeline. Much of this process could be modernized and improved with technology, including the use of video interviews, enhanced biometrics and facial recognition software, and financial data sharing and verification through platforms like Plaid. President Biden should also accept the recommendation from the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders to update U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services guidelines to allow H1-B visa holders within the United States to obtain visa renewal stamps domestically, as the guidelines had done previously, rather than forcing the visa holders to obtain it abroad.
By adopting technologies, the State Department can reduce reliance on manual, human-driven steps and create a more resilient visa approval process in times of budgetary shortfalls, low staff, or general unpredictability (e.g., social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic complicated in-person activities in visa processing) and ultimately mitigate the buildup of visa backlogs. Where human processing is still necessary, the State Department should leverage telework capabilities to reallocate staff virtually from embassies and consulates in other locations to better distribute the visa-processing workload.
The pandemic revealed that the State Department’s visa process is not adaptable or resilient enough. The current wait times for Indian visitors, students, and workers are simply unacceptable and restrict the flow of valuable human capital that has historically strengthened the American economy. As this situation threatens U.S.-Indian relations—a critical component within America’s broader network of allies facing increasing threats to democracy and free trade—it’s time the State Department take advantage of technology to modernize the visa process, not just in India but globally.