Department of State Announces Four-Tiered Approach for Immigrant Visa Prioritization at Consulates and Embassies Worldwide


In its continued efforts to improve communications with the public regarding the status of visa operations worldwide, the Department of State recently provided new insights regarding Immigrant Visa Prioritization at Consular posts overseas.

To reduce the immigrant visa backlog, the Department has announced the adoption of a new four-tiered approach that is designed to triage the processing of immigrant visa applications according to prioritization standards set by U.S. Congress. Such standards will ensure prioritized visa processing for certain categories of immigrant visa applicants, while posts prepare to resume and expand visa processing as local conditions improve.

Prioritization of immigrant visas will begin with a first tier including prioritization of immigrant visas for immediate relative intercountry adoption visas, age-out cases (cases where the applicant will soon no longer qualify due to their age), and certain Special Immigrant Visas (SQ and SI for Afghan and Iraqi nationals working with the U.S. government).

The second tier will include prioritization of immigrant visas for immediate relatives, fiancé(e) visas, and returning resident visas.

While the third tier will prioritize immigrant visas for family preference immigrant visas and SE Special Immigrant Visas for certain employees of the U.S. government abroad.

Finally, the fourth tier will prioritize immigrant visa processing for all other immigrant visas, including employment preference and diversity visas.

Constraints Impacting Visa Interview Availability  

In its announcement, the Department has said that its goal is to establish prioritization guidelines that will reduce the substantial backlog of immigrant visa applications resulting from travel restrictions and other operational constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the resumption of visa services is an important goal for the agency, the Department of State has made clear that that the health and safety of its personnel, that of visa applicants applying for immigration benefits, U.S. Citizens seeking assistance abroad, and the local population, continues to be of paramount concern.

The agency has said that Consular posts that process both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, are prioritizing immigrant visa applications while still providing some nonimmigrant visa services.  However, the volume and type of visa cases Consular posts have been able to process has continued to depend on local conditions, including restrictions on movement and gathering imposed by host country governments.

Additionally, Consular posts are facing constraints imposed by U.S. government mandates that require posts to follow guidelines on health and safety in the federal workplace, which is affecting the number of cases that can be processed by individual posts. U.S. Embassies and Consulates have continued to follow safety protocols including social distancing, and other safety measures, which have forced posts to dramatically reduce the number of applicants that Consular sections can schedule for interview appointments in a single day.

In line with these safety protocols, Consular sections will resume providing routine visa services only when it is safe to do so in that particular location.

Regarding the plight of immigrant visa applicants worldwide, the agency has said:

The petitioners and applicants in the immigrant visa process are more than just numbers.  We acknowledge the stress and hardships they have borne during the past year of reduced operating capacity as a result of COVID and necessary measures taken to protect health and safety or to comply with local requirements, as well as COVID-related limitations on their travel or visa issuance.  We also recognize the importance of each immigrant visa category. 

However, during the pandemic the Department has been forced to make difficult decisions regarding how our consular sections should prioritize immigrant visa applications as they operate at limited capacity and as they work through a backlog of immigrant visa cases once they resume full operating capacity. 

The guiding principle on which we have based immigrant visa prioritization is that family reunification is a clear priority of the U.S. Government’s immigration policy, a priority is expressed in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). 

Specifically, the Department’s prioritization relied on clear direction from Congress that the Department must adopt a policy of prioritizing immediate relative visa applicants and K-1 fiancées of U.S. citizens, followed by family preference immigrant visa applicants.    

Immigrant Visa Prioritization – The Four Tiers

In line with these Congressional mandates, U.S. Embassies and Consulates have adopted a four-tiered approach to triage immigrant visa applications based on the category of immigrant visa, as they resume and expand processing.

While Consular posts, where possible, are scheduling some appointments within all four priority tiers every month, the following lists the main categories of immigrant visas in priority order:

  • Tier One: Immediate relative intercountry adoption visas, age-out cases (cases where the applicant will soon no longer qualify due to their age), and certain Special Immigrant Visas (SQ and SI for Afghan and Iraqi nationals working with the U.S. government)
  • Tier Two:  Immediate relative visas; fiancé(e) visas; and returning resident visas
  • Tier Three: Family preference immigrant visas and SE Special Immigrant Visas for certain employees of the U.S. government abroad
  • Tier Four: All other immigrant visas, including employment preference and diversity visas

What will be the impact of this new four-tiered approach?

Although the four-tiered approach is a great improvement in the current stagnant state of visa processing worldwide, it is important to note that many embassies and consulates continue to have a significant backlog of all categories of immigrant visas.

According to the Department of State, this prioritization plan instructs posts to maximize their limited resources to accommodate as many immediate relative and fiancé(e) cases as possible with a goal of, at a minimum, preventing the backlog from growing in these categories and hopefully reducing it.

However, the prioritization plan also instructs posts to schedule and adjudicate some cases in Tier Three and Tier Four each month.  The Department recognizes that visa applicants, particularly those in Tiers Three and Four, will face continued delays. 

Impact on Diversity Visa Applicants

The agency also acknowledges that applicants participating in certain programs, including the diversity visa program, that operate on a fiscal year basis as required by law, are at risk of losing out on their ability to obtain an immigrant visa if they cannot apply within a specified period of time.

The Department states that it is making every effort to process as many diversity visa cases as possible, consistent with other priorities, despite the severe operational constraints and backlog resulting from the COVID pandemic.

Unfortunately, the agency projects that as a result of COVID the number of visas issued in lower-priority preference categories or in such programs as the diversity visa program likely will not approach the statutory ceiling in Fiscal Year 2021.

Where can I find more information?

We encourage our readers to monitor the Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs U.S. Visa News web page very closely. Many useful updates regarding immigrant visa prioritization and national interest exceptions are posted regularly on the web page.

In addition, applicants should be monitoring their Embassy/Consular web page closely to see what visa services are available at their individual post. As always if you believe you qualify for an expedited visa appointment, or the National Interest Exception, you should consider pursuing these requests as soon as possible.

Our office has helped dozens of applicants obtain expedited visa appointments around the world. If you would like to discuss your eligibility for an expedited appointment, please contact our office for a consultation.

For even more information about the resumption of visa services at U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad please click here.

Do you qualify for an NIE? If you would like to schedule a consultation, please text 619-483-4549 or call 619-819-9204.

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