Legal immigration to the U.S. rebounds from pandemic drop in visa approvals – CBS News

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By Camilo Montoya-Galvez
/ CBS News
Washington — The U.S. issued nearly half a million permanent visas to immigrants abroad in fiscal year 2022 as legal immigration rebounded following a sharp drop in visa approvals at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which impeded global travel and crippled processing at U.S. consulates, unpublished government data show.
During the 12-month span that ended on Sept. 30, the State Department issued 493,000 visas to immigrants overseas who had applied to move to the U.S. permanently, a 73% jump from fiscal year 2021 and a 7% increase from fiscal year 2019, the last full fiscal year before the pandemic.
There are several legal channels that immigrants abroad can utilize to relocate to America, most of which require having family members or employers in the U.S. willing to sponsor them. Other lawful pathways include a visa lottery for applicants from underrepresented countries and the U.S. refugee program, which provides a safe haven to those fleeing war and persecution across the globe.
Unlike tourists, short-term workers and other temporary visa holders, those awarded immigrant visas are allowed to live and work in the U.S. permanently and become permanent residents — or green card holders — after their arrival. After a certain number of years in the U.S., they can apply to become citizens.
The preliminary State Department statistics shared with CBS News show that immigrant visa approvals have returned to pre-pandemic levels after plummeting to 240,526 in fiscal year 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis led to a temporary shutdown of visa processing at U.S. consulates and embassies. The Trump administration also enacted a partial ban on immigrant visas that year, citing the economic impact of the pandemic.
“The rebound, an enormous part of it, is the easing of pandemic restrictions and the reopening of consulates and [U.S. immigration officials] getting back to regular levels of processing. But I also think the Biden administration is really concentrating on this,” said Julia Gellat, an analyst who researches the legal immigration system for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Soon after taking office in 2021, President Biden revoked the Trump-era visa restrictions and instructed the State Department and other agencies to eliminate barriers to legal immigration to the U.S.
Julie Stufft, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for visa services, noted the U.S. has reduced the immigrant visa backlog by 30%, including by hiring additional consular officers. She said the department understands the process is “central to people’s ability to see their families and visit, study, work in the United States.”
“Our goal remains to make visa processing better than it was pre-pandemic, not just to get back to a pre-pandemic level. We bounced back from this situation faster than we thought we could,” Stufft said in an interview.
The top 10 countries of origin of those awarded immigrant visas in fiscal year 2022 were Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, India, Cuba, Vietnam, China, El Salvador, Jamaica and Bangladesh.
In fiscal year 2022, the State Department issued 212,000 immigrant visas to spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens, the highest tally for this category since 2018. Unlike other immigrant visas, this category does not have numerical caps or per-country limits.
Another 157,000 immigrant visas were awarded to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents under the family preference category, which is capped at 226,000 visas each year. These visas are available to the adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens and the spouses and children of permanent residents. 
Roughly 55,000 immigrants abroad sponsored by their employers received immigrant visas in fiscal year 2022. The number of employment-based visas are usually capped at 140,000 annually. Visas under the family preference and employment categories also have per-country caps, as U.S. law prevents any one country from receiving over 7% of all visas awarded each year.
The State Department issued another 69,000 immigrant visas in smaller categories, including the diversity lottery and a special visa program for Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Moreover, 25,465 immigrants arrived in the U.S. under the refugee program in fiscal year 2022, though they are not counted in the visa tallies since they gain permanent residency after living in the country for a year.
The State Department visa figures do not include immigrants who gained permanent residency while already living in the U.S., as those cases are adjudicated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In fiscal year 2022, USCIS approved more than 545,000 green card requests from immigrants in the U.S., unpublished agency figures show.
That tally included 220,000 employment-based green cards approved by USCIS, on top of the 55,000 employment-based immigrant visas awarded by the State Department. In recent years, the cap for employment visas has been higher than the usual 140,000 ceiling because of a provision in U.S. immigration law that funnels unused family-based visas to the employment-based visa pool.
While visa approvals have increased since the start of the pandemic, the State Department is overseeing a massive backlog of hundreds of thousands of unresolved cases and certain visa applicants still face lengthy waits for interviews at U.S. consulates, many of which have not returned to pre-pandemic processing capacity.
There are currently 377,953 immigrant visa applicants waiting to be interviewed at U.S. consulates, compared to the 60,866 pre-pandemic monthly backlog average, according to State Department data
Moreover, the issuance of temporary U.S. visas has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. issued nearly 7 million temporary visas, which include visas for tourists, students, business travelers and workers, according to preliminary State Department data. While the tally is a significant increase from 2021, the U.S. issued roughly 9 million temporary visas per year between 2012 and 2019.
While consulate interview wait times have decreased overall since the outset of the pandemic, some have remained extremely lengthy. For example, tourist visa applicants are waiting an average of 999 days for an interview at the U.S. consulates in Mumbai and New Delhi, India. In Guadalajara and Mexico City, tourist visa applicants are waiting an average of 822 and 690 days, respectively, for a U.S. consular interview. 
Stufft, the State Department official, said she expects temporary visa numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels in fiscal year 2023 due to the hiring surge and certain “innovations.” The department is reassigning some cases across posts, tasking consular officers in China, for example, with adjudicating certain cases from Indian applicants.
The U.S., Stufft added, has also been able to waive in-person interviews for certain temporary visas, such as those for students and others deemed to be low-risk. About half of the temporary visas issued in fiscal year 2022 were adjudicated without in-person interviews. Stufft said the department is exploring the possibility of waiving in-person interviews for additional visas, but needs the consent of Homeland Security officials.
Camilo Montoya-Galvez is the immigration reporter at CBS News. Based in Washington, he covers immigration policy and politics.
First published on December 14, 2022 / 9:23 AM
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