Work visa holders can now renew visas in the U.S.

Ritu Jha-

When Nancy Jackson[Above right], the deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, came with a women’s team to Silicon Valley, she came bearing gifts for immigrants.

She told members of the press and later during the closed-door Round Table dinner with the Indian American community that H-1B, and L-1B visa holders can renew their visas in the U.S. instead of traveling back to the designated country, and that students can apply for visas immediately after getting accepted by a U.S.-based university.

Jennifer Sudweeks[Above left], a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, described it as Project PHILEO.

“The name represents the visa categories it covers,” she said. “P-H-I-L-E-O visas are all temporary work visas. We are going to be starting the domestic renewal of these visas. People who are in the United States on an H-1B visa won’t have to go back to India. We hope to be issuing our first visas at the end of the summer – in September. We’re going to start with a small pilot program in the summer, though not for all members of the H-1-B community at the beginning. But then we’re slowly going to build it up. We have to build an entire consular section from scratch, and it’s going to be the largest consular section in the world.”

Sudweeks said the department has done away with H-1B and L visas wait times, and that interviews are easier to get now. H-1Bs are given to foreign employees of a U.S. entity, while L visas are for staff from an international company coming over to have a supervisory role.

That was also when she announced that students could make an appointment at the embassy in their country immediately after they get their I-20s (documented proof of enrollment in a university) and acceptance letters.

“You used to have to wait until 90 days before your program start date to apply for a visa, which meant that everybody who was coming to the United States in September was going to the embassy in May,” Sudweeks said. “Now we have changed that to within 365 days.” Sudweeks said India was the country that sent the most students to the U.S. last year, and that the steps taken could ease the burden on her colleagues there. More than 250,000 Indian students study in US universities, so addressing visa wait times is critical.

When indica asked if the 60-day grace period for H-1B visa holders who have lost their jobs would be extended to 180 days, Sudweeks said that this comes under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, but that she might discuss the matter with colleagues in Washington.
She said the department knew of the impact visa delays have on people.

“We saw those wait times explode because of the pandemic,” Sudweeks said. “India is a huge market. The demand is always going to be so much larger than in any other country… This was a global problem, not just an India problem, but the problem with India is compounded just by the sheer size.” She added: “Our consular colleagues are working very hard to bring down those wait times. We’ve been surging staff to our embassy and consulates. We’ve been hosting events like super Saturdays, where the consulates are open, and the embassy is open, to process visas, and more.

She said that, ultimately, the U.S. remains committed to expanding its partnership with India, facilitating travel to the U.S., and increasing engagement with the diaspora.

She recalled the time she was posted in India.

“I was the visa, non-immigrant visa chief in New Delhi for four years, from 2015 to 2019,” Sudweeks said. “I loved every minute of living in India and working with my colleagues. The quality of the students that we saw coming through, wanting to go to US universities, the welcome that we felt from the people of India, it’s just astounding.

“When we saw wait times really skyrocketing in India, we knew we had to do something about it. And I feel a very personal stake in that. We in the visa office have really changed how we do things based on the demand in India. And demand in India is insatiable. Worldwide, we had a dip in travel and demand for US visas in about 2017 and 2018 for various reasons. But that did not happen in India. The demand only kept increasing. So as many people as we could get, we threw on the visa line and we worked really hard to make sure that that all happened.”
She said one significant effort is to expand the scope to waive interviews.

“In the past, when I was in India, if you had a tourist visa to the United States and it had expired within 24 months, you could just mail your passport in,” Sudweeks said. “You would go deliver your passport and get your photo taken. And we would adjudicate the visa without calling you into the embassy for an interview. We’ve expanded that permanently to 48 months. Part of the reason for that is demand in India. If your recess expired in the past four years, just go to the visa center, turn in your application and you don’t need to come in for an interview. And that has really changed the way we do things.”

She said that because demand in China and other countries isn’t nearly what it is in India, some of the work on Indian visas is being shifted to them, making for a complete change in how things were done.

Ajay Bhutoria, who serves on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and who made several important recommendations to President Joe Biden in September seeking domestic (U.S.-based) stamping of visa renewal said he was pleased with the move.

Jackson told Bhutoria with a smile, “We heard you.”

Bhutoria later hosted a closed-door community round table dinner with Jackson and her team attended by hundreds of Indian Americans.

Khanderao Kand, director of the Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies (FIIDS), a Washington DC-based think tank that hosted Jackson on February 21, in Washington, D.C., to talk about visa issues, was at the dinner.

He later told indica, “Her thoughts are reflected in actions, and the results show… the openness to engage with the Indian American community on various matters related to U.S.-India relations.”


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