State Department Visa and Passport Systems Back Online

by Joseph McKeown

Following the technological issues they experienced over the last few weeks, the State Department reports that as of last Friday all visa-issuing US Embassies and Consulates abroad are now back online. They are scheduling visa interviews as well as issuing nonimmigrant and immigrant visas. While consular posts may be still experiencing problems with some online immigrant visa application forms, which are still being fixed, they have been working to clear the extensive backlog, which they state will be done this week (which is perhaps a bit optimistic).

What happened?
A biometric hardware error brought the entire system down on June 7, preventing US Embassies and Consulates around the world from processing and issuing hundreds of thousands of visa stamps. Consular posts receive approximately 50,000 visa applications a day, and thus the downtime severely backlogged the system and caused major delays for many international travelers.

Who was able to obtain visas?
During the outage, with limited systems functionality, the State Department promised to prioritize visas for humanitarian reasons and also for foreign agricultural workers as part of the government's H-2A visa program. It was this latter group of workers that farmers especially needed as the summer harvest began. North Carolina, the top employer of seasonal workers under the H-2A visa program, was facing severe worker shortages and loss of revenue given the extensive delays in issuing visas.

"It's a crisis," Jason Resnick, general counsel for the Western Growers Association, said to the Wall Street Journal about the workers not being issued the visas. Crops affected by the shortage of foreign workers include berries, cherries, peaches, corn, vegetables, and tobacco. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In most cases the stranded workers’ motel bills in Mexico are being paid by the farmers or the U.S. agents who contracted them, according to the visa program’s requirements. Agents said some stranded workers, who typically travel to the border from far flung villages, are being approached by people-smugglers offering to spirit them over the border at a price. Coming at the start of the busiest season, 'it’s a desperate situation for growers,' said Libby Whitley, president of MAS Labor, a Virginia-based agency that sources 10,000 seasonal workers each year for U.S. agriculture. 'They have to get the stuff off trees and fields or you don’t have it anymore,' she said.

With delays costing farmers in California an estimated $500,000 to $1 million per day, the State Department reports that more than 3,750 temporary seasonal workers have been issued new visas in Mexico since last week, and they are stating that all pending H-2 visas that were delayed have been issued this week.  

Who didn't get visas?
The systems outage caused major problems for many international travelers and performers to the US. Dutch theatre troupe Dood Paard had to cancel its Botox Angels production, set to run over Pride weekend in New York City, after they were unable to secure visas for its cast. International students were unable to attend the US National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia, a prestigious month-long educational program for high-school graduates from around the world.

As for the sporting world, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) had to cancel several high-profile fights scheduled for the UFC Fight Night event in Hollywood since twelve foreign fighters were unable to obtain visas. Players and staff with the Bayern Munich football club, which had planned a visit to the US to “crack the American market,” were unable to obtain visas and had to cancel their trip. Matthias Sammer, director of sport at Bayern Munich, called it a "shame" and said he hoped they could make it later.

Musicians were hit especially hard. Nigerian jazz singer-songwriter King Sunny Ade had to cancel his entire US tour due to the visa problem, and Chinese concert pianist Fei-Fei Dong also had to cancel performances. Peruvian electronic psychedelic band Dengue Dengue Dengue! were also not able to get visas in time, Australian pop band the Veronicas had to cancel their US tour, and Japanese heavy metal band Crossfaith had to cancel part of theirs. India's Barmer Boys, Sufi folk musicians from Rajasthan, India, also had to cancel their US tour. Even diplomats who needed to visit the UN headquarters and financial institutions in New York for "urgent negotiations" also faced visa delays because of the system outage.

Now that the systems are back up, we are hopeful the State Department and consular posts will work through the backlog and start issuing those visas. Because, on behalf of concertgoers across this great land, we don't want to miss anymore great international performances. And we definitely don't want a repeat from last year when Harry Potter was unable to enter the US because of a (different) systems glitch!