Meijer, Upton press Biden administration on visas for temporary workers, farm laborers

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week urging him to fully restore visa processing as wait times and the backlog of appointments ballooned during the pandemic. 

Meijer and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Florida, led the letter signed by 88 members of Congress, saying the delays in visa processing are hurting businesses that rely on seasonal and short-term workers and also handicapping international and domestic travel just as it is starting to recover. 

"Limited visa processing capacity and extended wait-times are a legacy of measures taken in the early days of the pandemic that are no longer appropriate or necessary as testing and vaccines become more widely available," the lawmakers wrote. 

"With such a significant portion of U.S. visa processing sites fully or partially closed, travel businesses will not have the international visitors or the temporary workers they need to generate a speedy and robust recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The members noted that roughly 60% of U.S. embassies and consulates were partially or completely closed for visa processing as of October, with just 95 of 237 visa processing sites fully operational.

But even for the sites that are open, average wait times for an appointment had "skyrocketed" to more than six months in August. Some sites report wait times that are even greater, including Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the wait is a year and Sydney, Australia, with a wait time of 199 days.

Meijer and Soto asked Blinken to develop a plan to fully restore visa processing operations "as soon as possible," as well as a pilot program for the use of videoconferencing technology for visa interviews with low-risk applicants and those with urgent or time-sensitive travel. 

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, also signed onto Meijer's letter. 

The State Department said it doesn't comment on correspondence with Congress, but acknowledged that the pandemic resulted in "profound" reductions in its visa processing capacity, with many embassies and consulates only offering emergency services. 

The department said about 90% of embassies and consulates are still facing COVID-related restrictions and that many have staffing challenges that started during the pandemic.

A department spokesperson said the agency did meet demand during the pandemic in a majority of countries for student and academic exchange visas and met also the need for temporary agricultural workers to support the U.S. food-supply chain.

As visa processing is restarted at some sites, applicants may face extended wait times for interviews, but the department is committed to lowering those waits as quickly and safely as possible, the spokesperson said. 

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, also wrote to Blinken about visas, as well to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. 

In a letter he led with other lawmakers, Upton said he wants farm workers from South Africa to be allowed to temporarily travel to the United States to help ease labor shortages on U.S. farms, exempting them from travel restrictions imposed last month by the Biden administration after detection of the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19.

"Without an exemption to the recently imposed travel restrictions, South African H-2A worker absences will limit the ability of American farms to continue production of food, fuel and fiber for our nation during this critical time, especially amidst the severe supply chain disruptions currently taking place," the lawmakers wrote. 

They said the H-2A guest worker visa program typically sees about 7,000 of these workers originate from South Africa. 

The letter was also joined by Meijer and U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland. 

The White House announced Friday it will lift travel restrictions on eight southern African countries on Dec. 31. The restrictions were imposed to try to blunt the spread of the COVID omicron variant.

The variant, which was first detected by scientists in South Africa, has since spread around the world. The World Health Organization and leaders in southern Africa criticized the travel ban as ineffective and unfairly damaging to local economies.

The Nov. 29 ban barred nearly all non-U.S. citizens who had recently been in South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. 

Associated Press contributed.