Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The State Department’s Visa-Issuing Authority Is in Crisis

How “the worst consular system in the world” was turned around—and why it needs to happen again.

By , an immigration lawyer and former U.S. diplomat.
Russian, U.S., Spanish, and British passports
Russian, U.S., Spanish, and British passports is seen on a table with visa application forms in Moscow on July 31, 2014. AFP via Getty Images

Immigration is one of the United States’ most polarizing debates—just consider, in recent years, the Muslim ban, the Trump-era immigration wealth test, and the various COVID-19 travel bans. One common misconception is that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversaw these measures. In reality, it’s been the State Department and, in particular, its Bureau of Consular Affairs, which is tasked with issuing visas abroad and ensuring the protection of U.S. citizens living in or visiting other nations.

After four years of the Trump administration and more than a year of the coronavirus, Consular Affairs is in serious trouble. Several leaked internal memos and cables point to a drastic restriction in finances for the bureau that will lead to reduced services until at least 2022, and perhaps even 2023. It already has a backlog of more than 500,000 immigrant visa applications and millions for non-immigrant visas, including student visas. Moreover, during the Trump era, some 400 employees quit or retired—many of them visa officers—and even now, one in three State Department staff, according to a recent survey, are looking to leave their posts.

The United States has been here before. More than 100 years ago, the State Department and Consular Affairs confronted a crisis of indifference, low morale, and budgeting woes. Leaders inside and outside of government rallied to reform the bureau’s system—and that, in turn, led to reforming the entire State Department.

Immigration is one of the United States’ most polarizing debates—just consider, in recent years, the Muslim ban, the Trump-era immigration wealth test, and the various COVID-19 travel bans. One common misconception is that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversaw these measures. In reality, it’s been the State Department and, in particular, its Bureau of Consular Affairs, which is tasked with issuing visas abroad and ensuring the protection of U.S. citizens living in or visiting other nations.

After four years of the Trump administration and more than a year of the coronavirus, Consular Affairs is in serious trouble. Several leaked internal memos and cables point to a drastic restriction in finances for the bureau that will lead to reduced services until at least 2022, and perhaps even 2023. It already has a backlog of more than 500,000 immigrant visa applications and millions for non-immigrant visas, including student visas. Moreover, during the Trump era, some 400 employees quit or retired—many of them visa officers—and even now, one in three State Department staff, according to a recent survey, are looking to leave their posts.

The United States has been here before. More than 100 years ago, the State Department and Consular Affairs confronted a crisis of indifference, low morale, and budgeting woes. Leaders inside and outside of government rallied to reform the bureau’s system—and that, in turn, led to reforming the entire State Department.


When the State Department was established in 1789, it comprised two distinct entities: a diplomatic service and a consular service. Diplomats lived in foreign capitals and focused on maintaining relations, while consuls were in ports and commercial centers dealing with U.S. sailors in trouble and commercial shipping interests.

Almost immediately, the consular service’s operations were controversial. The appointment process for consuls was haphazard, unregulated, and based less on qualifications than on political favors. It was not uncommon for U.S. businessmen abroad to call on Congress to create a post they could fill themselves. Furthermore, consuls were not paid by the government and would charge their own fees for services. The price of services varied from post to post, and many consuls vastly underestimated how much it cost to run a post and found themselves turning to unscrupulous business deals to dig themselves out of debt.

Though past consuls like James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne made for great writers, government figures and U.S. businessmen abroad complained about consuls’ incompetence. “For all the wonder is not that we have bad consuls,” one past secretary of State lamented in the 1830s, “but that we have good ones—for we have taken great pains to settle on the worst consular system in the world and no thanks to us, if we are not represented by men as universally bad as the system under which they serve.”

Although DHS is practically synonymous with immigration policy, it handles immigration matters only within U.S. borders.

It was not until one consul led an initiative to reform the system at the start of the 20th century that things changed. With his Midwestern working-class roots, Wilbur Carr—who would go on to become an advisor to presidents and the head of the consular service—had deep concerns with how the service was run and its domination by Eastern elites.

Backed by politicians including Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State Elihu Root, Secretary of War William Howard Taft, and President Theodore Roosevelt, Carr ensured a consular reform bill passed in 1906. The bill not only paid those in the consular service a salary, but also created a uniform fee structure, ensuring all fees for services, such as document authentication, were paid to the U.S. Treasury instead of to individual officers. An executive order during this time also created a board of examiners and a merit system for appointment and promotion at the consular service, effectively ending the patronage system.

These actions were so successful in modernizing Consular Affairs that Congress let Carr create the modern-day foreign service through the Rogers Act of 1924, which combined the U.S. diplomatic and consular services into the State Department that we know today.

The merger came around the time consuls became responsible for visa processing. Although DHS is practically synonymous with immigration policy, it handles immigration matters only within U.S. borders. Consular Affairs, on the other hand, is tasked with handling visas abroad.

Consular began issuing visas as part of border control around World War I—a process that was formalized in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. Like today, foreign nationals would essentially have to make a convincing case for entering the country. But visa processing was minimal, since there was a restrictive quota against all non-Europeans during that era. It made sense for a single officer to interview the few applicants who needed to get to the United States.

The reformed system worked for decades, but the days of a few consular interviews have long passed. In 2019, before the pandemic limited travel, Consular Affairs issued nearly 10 million non-immigrant visa applications, and officers were expected to interview 120 applicants per day. It’s a rushed system: A standard visa interview may be five minutes or less, conducted through bulletproof glass, often in a language other than English. There is little privacy for applicants who answer personal questions about their plans, income, criminal history, and family with others nearby. Within that five-minute interval, officers must also complete security and criminal checks. This system is well beyond what was intended or envisioned by Congress in the 1924 immigration law and its 1952 amendments that created the modern-day Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The Trump era and COVID-19 have made things much worse. The Trump administration forced out longtime Consular Affairs leaders, such as Michele Bond, and appointed Carl Risch to lead the bureau—someone who called for Consular Affairs to lose its visa issuance authority to DHS in congressional testimony after 9/11. The Trump administration also vowed to cut State’s budget by 37 percent and one former White House official dismissed the department as “radical unelected bureaucrats.”

Beyond the taunts and indifference, the Trump administration, in an effort led by then-senior advisor Stephen Miller, pushed Consular Affairs to enforce rules such as the Muslim ban and the 2019 public charge rule—which made it harder for low-income immigrants to access green cards—with minimal input from officers. More than 400 new rules without any increase in funding forced Consular Affairs to do more work with less money and authority, and officers—high ranking and mid-level—left in droves.

COVID-19 presented a different type of challenge. Consular Affairs is self-funded from the fees it generates through visa appointments so, during the pandemic, its few appointments left the bureau financially strapped—more than $1 billion down in revenue—and with a hiring freeze. While Consular Affairs struggles with any modicum of order as international travel resumes, the backlog of visa applicants will only grow.

That’s a problem not only for those desperate to enter the country but also for the U.S. economy. International students who arrived on student visas in 2019 alone contributed $44 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 450,000 jobs. Inattention to Consular Affairs leaves a vacuum of power, influence, and money that will flow to competitor nations in tourism and international student dollars.


Although its duties have changed over time, Consular Affairs’ long history of challenges and reforms holds important lessons. Just as Carr, Lodge, and Taft reformed consular services more than 100 years ago, individuals championing the bureau must come together today from Washington’s bureaucratic ranks, Congress, and the White House.

First, they must address Consular Affairs’ lack of authority over its finances, which has left it a mess. The bureau’s budget is primarily fee-generated through a mechanism known as the Border Security Program at the State Department. Though Consular Affairs fees fully fund this program, it doesn’t have full control over the money. Instead, the dollars go to the Bureau of Budget and Planning, which then doles out the fee-generated Consular Affairs money to other areas, such as facilities maintenance, educational classes for non-bureau officers, State Department security, and other items that should be funded by Congress.

Congress should treat Consular Affairs with the importance it deserves.

Congress should give the bureau the authority to retain and control more of its fees. More control will solve part of the problem, but Congress also needs to ensure that the bureau does not have to pay for unrelated programs so it can devote its money to hiring more officers and to internal improvements, such as better visa processing technology. Even during the pandemic, Consular Affairs has been holding in-person interviews despite little evidence that they’re better than remote ones. Requiring U.S. officials abroad to interview almost every individual who wants to travel long-term to the United States is labor intensive, costly, and hard to justify in the digital age. It’s also not in line with the country’s competitors for international travel—Australia, Canada, and most of Europe—which do not rely on face-to-face interviews for visas.

Congress should also do for Consular Affairs what it did for its domestic counterpart, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, last fall—significantly supplement its funding to close its visa backlog while demanding changes from within. Indeed, any increase in funding and power must come with a requirement of internal reforms, such as a clear mandate and timetable for technological updates, increasing training, hiring more Consular Affairs fellows (non-career officers who solely conduct interviews), and providing more time for visa interviews.

Finally, the authority of Consular Affairs must be recognized within the State Department. The bureau funds much of State’s operations and is responsible for one of its most important duties: the aid and defense of U.S. citizens abroad. Yet for administrative purposes, Consular Affairs is on par with the other 30 or so bureaus within the State Department. Congress should treat Consular Affairs with the importance it deserves by making the assistant secretary of State for Consular Affairs an undersecretary position that answers only to the secretary of State or deputy secretary of State. That would ensure Consular Affairs has more power over its budget and assignments, and a greater say in driving immigration policy.

Reforming Consular Affairs could be the first step in reforming the entire State Department—just as it was 100 years ago. In the past, it was a truly innovative bureau that helped to overhaul Washington’s foreign-policy machine, and that can happen again. There’s been a lot of talk about the State Department’s dire need for reform—and the right way go about doing that—and Consular Affairs is the best place to start.

Christopher Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a U.S. diplomat between 2011 and 2018 and served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Spain.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.