People-to-people ties form the bedrock of the India-US relationship and addressing the visa wait time issue is critical to maintaining them, senior administration officials said here.
Reducing the visa wait time is a top priority for Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nancy Jackson told Indian reporters at a roundtable organised on Tuesday by the State Department, along with the Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies (FIIDS).
"As I look at the relationship, it strikes me that people-to-people ties between our two nations are really the bedrock of what is one of our most consequential relationships in the world and that's the US-India relationship. We can't underscore that enough. So addressing the visa wait times that we've been facing is critical not only to maintaining those people-to-people ties, but to expand them," Jackson said.
FIIDS has been working with the Biden Administration for the past several months on addressing various issues facing Indian-Americans, particularly the visa wait time.
"It is the number-one priority that we're facing right now. We are absolutely committed to getting us out of this situation where anyone in India seeking a visa appointment or a visa would have to wait a long time. That is certainly not our ideal," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Julie Stufft.
The State Department, she said, has taken several steps to reduce the visa wait time. These include more and more categories being waived off from visa interviews, sending dozens of officials to India to conduct the interviews, screening of visa applications by officials at the State Department here in the US, involving officials from its other diplomatic missions in the process and opening up its embassies and missions in other countries as far as Thailand and Germany for Indian visa-seekers for an in-person interview.
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"For first-time visitor appointments, we've cut a year and two months off the wait time already. Now, the second year we take off of that is going to be harder than the first, but we're going to get there," she said.
"All non-visitor visa types -- students, workers, and anyone who has travelled previously to the United States -- have very very low wait times. Our H-1b and F visa (for students) wait times were just as high as the tourist wait times six months ago. We brought down those categories," Stufft said.
"We brought down the wait for people who don't need an interview. We made a lot of progress on that. And just because of the sheer number of visitor visa applications, which is our largest category around the world, certainly in India, we still have that one wait time to go after," she said.
"Also, we've waived interviews for anyone who's been a repeat traveller," Stufft said.
More can be done, she noted. "Because we have interviews waived for a large number of Indian visa applicants, we can have people all over the world doing those cases, not just in India. So right now, today, we have dozens and dozens of officers around the world and here in Washington, right down the street doing Indian visas on behalf of our Mission in India," the State Department official said.
In that way, they can concentrate in India on people who need that interview. "And we can let other people concentrate on the people who don't need the interview. So, someone in China could be doing Indian cases, and those are printed in India and sent back locally. This has been a major help to us," Stufft said.
"We've also opened up other missions, and this is actually unprecedented. We've asked other US embassies to take on Indian visa applicants specifically if they choose to travel there. Our biggest place where we're doing this right now is Bangkok. Thailand is a place where Indian citizens don't need a visa to travel to. And anyone who even needs a visitor visa appointment can go to Bangkok," she said.
Observing that it is not the ideal situation for anyone to have to leave their home country for an American visa appointment, she said that in the meantime, it is very useful. The US Mission in Frankfurt among others is allowing people who maybe are in the United States travelling out to go there rather than come all the way back home, she said, adding that this has really helped people who are urgently trying to travel on a visitor visa.
"We have seen this actually working. In the last few months, Indian citizens have applied to more than a hundred different US embassies overseas, and many of them are travelling from India for that appointment. So this is something people are taking advantage of," Stufft said.
The US has also sent several dozens of staff to India to process the visa applications. They are working weekends and in shifts during the week, she said. "Because of them being there, we've made some really incredible progress," she said.
Because of these steps, Stufft said the US has issued 36 per cent more visas than it did before the pandemic in India during normal times. This is expected to go up as the year goes on, she asserted.
"We are throwing all of our resources against this and we are seeing progress," Jackson said, underscoring that this is one of the top priorities for the State Department as its relationship with India strengthens.
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