H-1B and L-1 workers can look forward to upcoming U.S. Department of State changes.
The H-1B visa program has remained almost completely unchanged since its creation as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. Since 2004, in order to renew the H-1B visa, visa holders must return to their country of origin in order to have their visa stamped before returning to the U.S. But stateside visa renewal is coming back, and it heralds positive change for immigrants, their employers, and the U.S.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused visa backlogs that haven’t been recovered, and people can be waiting to take the international travel required for the H-1B visa stamp process for over a year. In February, Julie Stufft, deputy assistant secretary for visa services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, announced that the U.S. Department of State will launch a pilot program allowing domestic visa stamp renewal for H and L visa holders.
“The pilot is an important first step in bringing back domestic visa renewal options to individuals in the United States,” said Tiffany Derentz, senior counsel at global immigration firm Berry Appleman and Leiden. “Domestic visa renewal will help reduce workloads at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, allowing consular officers to focus on applications that can’t be processed in the U.S., like B-1 business visas. Domestic visa renewal will allow for greater certainty among visa applicants and businesses and should help prevent some unexpected delays that individuals have experienced over the last few years. For some companies, added benefits include cost savings (such as travel/hotel costs when applying for visa renewal abroad) and increased certainty in scheduling travel from and to the U.S.”
Derentz also sees the pilot program affecting immigration in the coming years. Given visa backlogs are still high in key visa processing countries, such as India and Mexico, domestic visa renewal could play a significant role in reducing backlogs—in particular, in 2024 and 2025, which, in turn, would allow consular officers at U.S. embassies and consulates to focus on applications that require an in-person interview. As the State Department reduces backlogs and processing times return to more reasonable levels, domestic renewal is likely to be seen as more of a courtesy to applicants.
Little about the pilot program has been released, but Derentz notes that visa “revalidation” is separate and distinct from the domestic renewal pilot. While the State Department has not released information about who exactly will qualify for the pilot program, a recent international visit has given some clues. After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. in June, President Biden and the White House released a joint statement indicating that some Indian nationals will be part of the pilot program, but there has been no further information made available about the specifics. This is crucial as Indians secured 74.1% of H1-Bs in the 2021 lottery and 74.9% in the 2020 lottery issued to foreign workers. With immigration difficulties including a nationality-based cap on green card applications and wait times extending for decades, this move to make domestic visa renewals for Indian talent in the U.S. easier has been welcomed.