The Pandemic Is the Perfect Time to Rethink Travel Visas

How to make consular services better than ever.

Passengers walk through an empty Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12.
Passengers walk through an empty Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

If the Trump administration’s goal from day one was to restrict legal immigration and travel for work, study, or tourism, it could not have found a better partner than COVID-19, which has led to a near-total shutdown of global travel and visa processing. Once the worst of the pandemic has passed, it may be tempting for any potential new administration elected in November to focus on returning things to the status quo, undoing the most contested of the Trump administration’s immigration policies and ramping back up visa processing along traditional lines. Doing so, however, would be a missed opportunity.

The current U.S. visa system, which dates back to 1965, is a patchwork of policies and practices out of step with the times and with the United States’ global standing. The Trump administration has been so successful at denying foreign citizens opportunities to travel to the United States because, for decades, the visa process had already suffered from benign neglect at the hands of the White House. But now the ongoing pause in global travel gives the United States an unprecedented chance to correct that problem.

The United States’ antiquated visa system has struggled to support U.S. interests since long before 2017. Each year, the country loses tens of thousands of potential tourists, workers, and students due to delays and perceived difficulties in obtaining a visa—costing the U.S. economy millions, if not billions, of dollars. Meanwhile, the United States’ image abroad is hurt when, for many individuals, their first and only face-to-face encounter with the U.S. government falls somewhere between mildly inconvenient and deeply humiliating. The system fails to live up to U.S. ideals when applicants are issued or refused a visa based on their race, religion, nationality, or language skills and disproportionate to their actual qualifications. And internally, the system struggles to provide security by hunting for the rare applicant who signals their ties to terrorism in the visa application process rather than focusing on the risk posed by individuals already able to enter—or currently residing in—the United States.

That’s why, if President Donald Trump loses in November, the next administration would do well to look beyond the technical tasks of reopening travel to the United States and unwinding specific visa policies to the larger goal of creating a modernized and equitable visa process.

Several steps will be key. The Trump administration demonstrated that visa issues are symbolic, visceral, and have real impact. Recognizing the political importance of visa policy, the administration broke with recent tradition and named a political appointee as assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. It also empowered a senior advisor in the White House to take lead on all visa issues. The next administration should maintain the political focus on visas, perhaps elevating the head of the visa function to the assistant secretary level and putting an undersecretary in charge of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The next administration will also have to craft a broader vision for U.S. visa policy and how it’s implemented. Visa regulations have no purpose other than enforcing immigration laws, and it is up to each administration to create its own framework—whether that is “Secure Borders, Open Doors,” as under President George W. Bush, or “America First,” as under Trump. Any vision for the visa system will need to think closely about how to balance public health concerns and economic recovery, but if the next administration fails to articulate a clear vision, then the bureaucracy will revert to its default: enforcing laws for the sake of enforcing laws and charting a path based on bureaucratic momentum.

There is also the question of culture. If U.S. immigration law was originally written to facilitate travel while keeping out ne’er-do-wells, its focus has flipped in the implementation. Consular managers and trainers put a heavy focus on Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act—a small but powerful snippet of U.S. visa law that instructs visa adjudicators to assume that the vast majority of applicants are ineligible and should be denied a visa until proved otherwise. While Section 214(b) is not inherently problematic, its application can be. Visa adjudicators performs upwards of 100 face-to-face interviews a day in a setting that demands that they rely on unconscious and conscious biases in order to keep up with the pace of work. The Trump administration’s focus on driving down overstay rates has accelerated the trend. The next administration should promote a culture that recognizes routinely refusing visas to qualified individuals can be as problematic to the fair application of immigration law as the opposite and that it has serious costs to the United States’ reputational security.

This culture has made it easy to create an environment that puts government efficiency over the needs of applicants. Over the years, there have been pushes to emphasize customer service at visa sections overseas, but, even today, applicants use a buggy and poorly designed website to schedule an appointment weeks in advance, line up outdoors in the hot sun, and hand over their cellphone in order to be grilled about their travel plans through bulletproof glass. The adjudicator makes a decision on the spot, and applicants are often refused a visa through a crackly microphone in front of dozens of curious onlookers. The next administration should focus on improving the applicant experience by addressing the root cause: a visa system that tries to process too many applicants with too few resources. As a first step, the next administration should find ways to better fund the Bureau of Consular Affairs—made even more urgent by the drop in visa fees collected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The next administration will also have to create a security infrastructure that works. Since 9/11, the visa system has paired extreme risk adverseness with reliance on an overly complicated and ever growing security screening process. The system results in situations where visa applications languish for years without a decision while individuals who should merit further scrutiny pass through undetected. Rather than pushing through more policy changes for enhanced security from the top and expecting the internal processes to keep up, the next administration should take time to ask security experts what policies truly make sense and what resources they need to create a streamlined vetting process that handles cases quickly, correctly, and in accordance with current threats.

In line with that goal will be modernizing decision-making. In 2020, the same year that entire schools, workplaces, and even governments have moved operations online, the U.S. visa system still requires a U.S. citizen sitting in a U.S. embassy overseas personally interviewing almost every individual who wants to travel to the United States. The cost to the U.S. government and applicants for this extremely labor-intensive process is immense, and it is increasingly difficult to justify in a digital age. The personal interview has taken on almost mythic status in the U.S. visa process, but many competitors for global travelers—including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Schengen states—have moved to less resource-intensive systems that do not rely on face-to-face interviews. The next administration should look closely at the relationship between in-person interviews and quality of decision-making; it will likely find that the correlation is weaker than expected.

Further, the technical infrastructure underlying U.S. visa processing should have been replaced decades ago but has been patched up enough to keep it lumbering along—for the most part. The system has, in fact, fallen apart a few times, including during a series of system crashes in 2014 that shut down visa processing across the globe. Visa adjudicators have been waiting for a long-promised IT system upgrade since at least 2008—over a decade ago—and there is no question that the current technology impairs productivity and lets serious security lapses pass unnoticed. The next administration should explore how technological advances in automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence could help make better and safer decisions.

Beyond the technological systems, the next administration will also have to focus on staffing. Visa adjudicators are the primary face of the U.S. government to populations overseas, but that face comes from a State Department corps that is still primarily white and male. It is important that visa applicants interact with a bureaucracy that reflects the full breadth of the American experience. The administration and Bureau of Consular Affairs leadership will also have to listen to a wide range of stakeholders—including people who feel that they’ve been wronged by the system—to craft a new and more positive culture and vision.

Visa law, policies, systems, and staffing tend toward the technical, and it is easy to get lost in the weeds. Parts of the current visa function are held together with duct tape and wire, and change is scary, because it risks upsetting a dozen delicate balances. It is trivially easy for a new administration to arrive, take a brief look around the Visa Office, and decide to slowly back away. What is more difficult is for the new administration to take the time to truly understand the visa function of today and to envision one for tomorrow. What does the visa system look like in 2050? Who is traveling to the United States, how, and why? What does a consular section look like, and what does it do? By asking questions like these, the next administration can begin to shape a legacy that will last beyond just the next four years.

If the next administration doesn’t take steps to fundamentally fix the system, nothing terrible will happen. The visa function will continue to plug along, as it has done for more than 50 years in its current state. The right people (mostly) will travel to the United States, the wrong people (mostly) will be kept out, and tourists, family members, and students will more or less end up where they need to be. But the next administration will have missed a brilliant opportunity: one to reshape the visa system into something that can help restore America’s standing abroad, that can help rebuild a national economy devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that can symbolize the beginning of a new chapter in U.S. foreign relations.

Bethany Milton is a former U.S. foreign service officer. She previously served as a visa adjudicator in Mumbai and Tel Aviv and was head of the immigrant visa unit in Mumbai, special assistant to the executive director for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and chief of the consular section in Kigali, Rwanda.

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