While U.S. officials say the move is necessary to better align visa prices with what it costs to provide them, critics worry that if the administration does not address visa wait times, the increased costs could mean even fewer travelers and students coming to the United States.
According to a Federal Register notice, the State Department expects the new prices to take effect in September and will accept comments until February 28 on the proposed increases.
“All of the fee increases are occurring at a time when tourism and travel to the United States is already at an all-time low, and the State Department is imposing waits of six months to a year in many places for tourist or business visas,” he told the VOA David Bier, immigration policy expert at the Cato Institute.
State Department figures show that the visas with the highest number of applications are tourist, business, and study visas.
A nonimmigrant visa allows the holder to travel as a tourist or to live, work or study temporarily in the U.S. under certain conditions. Applications for tourist visas, B1 and B2, and student visas, F, M, J, will increase from $160 to $245, equivalent to a 54% increase. While employment-based visas, H, L, O, P, Q and R, will go from $190 to $310, representing a 63% increase.
“The most important thing is whether the visas are issued promptly. If the administration increases costs, but there is no great improvement in the State Department’s service, then the result will be many fewer travelers,” Bier added.
U.S. airport traffic has declined in recent years, counting both domestic and international travelers. According to the Transportation Security Administration, it assessed a total of 1.1 million people on Jan. 26. On the same date in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, that number exceeded 2 million.
Addressing the U.S. immigration system was one of the main campaign promises of President Joe Biden.
On his first day in office, he introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, sweeping immigration reform legislation that included an eight-year path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., a plan to eliminate employment-based visa stacking, and a plan to prevent dependents of work visa holders from aging out of the system, among other changes.
But the legislation stalled in Congress and is largely considered all but dead.
“Immigrants have done much for America during the pandemic, as they have throughout our history. The country supports immigration reform. Congress should act,” Biden said at the time.
Immigration experts say that while Biden reversed many of his predecessor’s policies, often described as anti-immigration, a Trump administration executive order limiting legal immigration and the issuance of temporary work visas contributed to longer wait times for nonimmigrant visas.
The State Department temporarily suspended routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. They are reopening under a gradual resumption of visa services, but about a quarter are partially or fully closed, according to the Cato Institute.
U.S. consulates around the world are an important component of the immigration system, processing visas “authorizing travel to the United States, but many consulates remain closed and those open report record wait times: [más de un año] at dozens of locations,” Bier wrote in a recent analysis.
A State Department official told the. VOA that U.S. embassies and consulates have online information on operational status and what services are currently offered.
According to Bier, in January, most consulates reported waits of 202 days for a visa appointment for business travelers and tourists, up from 95 days in April 2021. For students and exchange visitors, the wait was about 38 days, up from about 25 days about a year ago, and 62 days for all others, including temporary skilled workers, up from 40 days in April 2021.
Effect on students, workers.
A State Department spokesperson explained that the department’s consular operations are largely funded by fees for services and that the proposed fee increase is to ensure that the agency fully recovers the costs of providing these services.
“Visa fees charged by the department are generally based on the cost of providing visa services and are determined after conducting a study of the cost of such service,” the spokesperson told the VOA via email. “Evaluation of the actual cost of service in combination with demand projections over many years determined the rates published in the proposed fee schedule.”
The fee increase should translate into better service, especially shorter wait times, which is particularly important for students, said Jill Welch, senior policy advisor for the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.
“We are still evaluating the potential impact of the proposed rule on international student flows into the United States. … It is important that [el Departamento de Estado] have adequate resources to process visa applications, particularly for those students and academics who have tight deadlines to obtain their visas in order to arrive in time for the academic term,” Welch said.
International students at U.S. colleges and universities contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 458,290 jobs in the 2018-19 academic year, according to a study by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
In the 2020-21 academic year, international students contributed $28.4 billion to the U.S. economy, a decrease of nearly 27%, or $10.3 billion, largely due to the pandemic.
But not everyone believes that higher visa costs will have a big impact.
Marcelo Barros, an expert on international student careers in Washington, told the VOA that although the rate increase was “unfortunate,” it would not stop people from coming to the U.S.
“This will not have any significant impact on enrollment. [de estudiantes] or on [las visas basadas en el empleo]. This will have no significant impact on the desire of companies to hire talent outside the U.S.,” he said, adding that if travelers, students or highly skilled workers want to come to the U.S., they will pay the new tariff.
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