DOS Q&A Session with Neal Vermillion: Immigrant Visa Backlog, Prioritization for Processing, 2020 DV Lottery Winners, and More


We are excited to share with you some new updates regarding the immigrant visa backlog.

On May 25, 2021, the U.S. Department of State: Bureau of Consular Affairs, hosted a live YouTube Question and Answer session with Neal Vermillion, Division Chief at the U.S. Visa Office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, where he discussed how Consular sections have been prioritizing cases during the phased resumption of visa services, and information about the status of the current immigrant visa backlog worldwide.

Neal Vermillion works directly with the Office of Field Operations, which is a government agency that provides guidance to Consular sections including Embassies and Consulates around the world. He has worked with the Department of State since the early 2000’s in various roles and has invaluable expertise on visa operations at Consular sections around the globe.

In this post, we will share with you the highlights of this session which you may find useful to determine the progress of your visa and what you can expect with regard to visa processing in the coming months.

DOS Q&A Session with Neal Vermillion: Immigrant Visa Backlog Q&A

Neal’s Introductory Remarks

I would first like to say a few remarks before we get to that question and the other specific ones. In terms of the history, here we are almost June 2021. Those of you that follow our immigrant visa processing overseas know, we actually shut down due to the pandemic. Visa processing shut down for several months last year at this time, and we really didn’t start the reopening process until July of last year. This is one significant factor that is leading to this backlog discussion that we are having today.

Another point I want to highlight that is another prong of why we are where we are is, you may recall, last spring as well, then President Trump signed Presidential Proclamation 10014, which President Biden rescinded in late February of this year, but that Proclamation prevented the issuance, even when we were open and our Consular sections were processing some visas, that prevented the issuance and travel of many many different types of immigrant visas.

A third prong as we’re talking about Presidential Proclamations, is … some of you may be aware, there are actually still in effect geographic Proclamations, as we call them, which basically are again Presidential Proclamations that have been issued to help protect the homeland, protect health and security.

Currently, there are Proclamations in effect that cover 33 countries which basically say anyone that has been present in any of these 33 countries within the last 14 days, can’t travel to the United States, and that means we can’t issue visas to them.

The good news now, just in the last month, however, is that none of these Proclamations currently stand in the way. On April 7, 2021, Secretary of State Lincoln signed National Interest Determinations that exempted immigrant visa applicants and fiancé(e)’s from those Proclamations.

That history I just went through of the Presidential Proclamations protecting the labor market, the geographic Proclamations, the shutting down because of the pandemic itself, not to mention the individual circumstances at each and every Embassy and Consulate, all this led to a significant backlog, and as I said earlier an unprecedented backlog. The pandemic still exists, so getting out of this backlog is not a linear process at all. While vaccinations are helping curb the pandemic in the United States, overseas the situation is not so simple.

Last week, as an example, I talked with managers of a large immigrant visa processing post and they just reviewed their last few months with me and their operating status, and they mentioned two of the local staff had actually passed away due to COVID. Less than 1 percent of the country’s population had been vaccinated so the Consular section there has gone through a series of closures and reopening’s, implementing social distance protocols. Obviously, other posts are in much better shape than that, but this post is not an exception facing staff that are ill or even dying in this case, a pandemic that is more rampant in the history country than it is actually here.

I wanted to start with that background to help others understand why that backlog has developed.

Q: What are we doing to decrease the Immigrant Visa Backlog Worldwide?

In terms of the immigrant visa backlog, it exists it’s there. We really do understand the frustrations and the hardships both by the people that are petitioning for their loved ones, to the applicants waiting longer than anyone of us would really like for a visa interview. I want everyone that’s listening to please know that we are working as hard as our resources and conditions allow to adjudicate visa applications as quickly as possible. Obviously, it’s our job to do that, it’s what we’re paid for, it’s the right thing to do. Also, President Biden has signed an Executive Order basically directing us to do that, the Executive Order as you may know is 14012 Restoring Faith in Our Legal Immigration System. We intend to do our part to do that.

Q: What do you have to say regarding the things that we can do to decrease the backlogs?

We are fully committed to reducing that backlog. Honestly, keeping everyone informed is part of that effort. It’s one of the reasons we are doing this Q & A session. I also want to highlight that we have started posting in the last month and we’ll update our website monthly with the statistics of the immigrant visa backlog.

To briefly talk about some numbers, if that’s helpful, at the National Visa Center, the current number of immigrant visa applications that are ready for interviews but not yet scheduled, is 481,965, if you think that’s a big number yeah that is a big number. That’s almost a half a million cases, and that frankly is up from 408,255 a figure from January 2021. If you want to compare when our last normal month of processing was, that’s back in January of 2020, so almost 15-17 months ago, that was 80,000, was the backlog then. So that number is there, it’s increasing and will fluctuate overtime. This is not a linear process.

I know that number doesn’t include cases that were already at posts or cases where people may have already submitted their applications or petitions to the Department of Homeland Security, where the case has not gotten to the National Visa Center yet. I want to start by saying we want to be transparent about this, you can look at updates on our website every month to see what information is out there.

In terms of what we are doing, we are throwing out all available resources that we can, and we are specifically telling our Consular sections at our Embassies and Consulates overseas that they must prioritize services and support for U.S. Citizens, but after that with respect to visa services, the processing of immigrant visas and fiancé(e) visa processing is our number one priority. Particularly, for all immigrant immediate relatives and family sponsored applicants. That is number one first and foremost.

Please understand that we are continuing to deal with circumstances on the ground that we can talk about as we go through this session, and the volume and type of visa cases that can be issued will continue to depend on local circumstances. We are doing our best to process these applications as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and as safely as possible under the circumstances.

Q: How are Immigrant Visa applicants being prioritized for those interview appointments?

That’s a great question. Again, this is another article I would like to point out. I will go through the information here, but it is also posted on our newsroom website. We encourage you to look there as well.

Basically, we have any number of immigrant visa categories as many of you know, we have immediate relatives, we have employment-based visas, family preference visas, diversity visas, etc. We truly recognize the importance of each immigrant visa category and don’t want to minimize the importance of those categories. However, during the pandemic we have been forced to make difficult decisions about how our Consular sections should prioritize these applications as they operate amid the varying local conditions, and before we reach full capacity.

So, to be clear, as we have developed this prioritization framework, the underlying principle on which we base this, is the primacy of family reunification. Family reunification is a clear priority of the U.S. government, it’s a priority expressed in the law that oversees immigration – the INA, and specifically our prioritization guidance that we have given both publicly relies on a clear direction from Congress that the State Department must adopt the policy of prioritizing immediate family relatives and K-1 fiancé(e) visas, followed by family preferences.

We’ve given our divided immigrant visa work into four priority tiers. We have instructed Consular sections where possible to schedule some appointments within all of our priority tiers. So, we are not shutting out any one tier, that said, the majority of cases that a section will process, if they are able to, are going to be in the first two tiers. So, what are the first two tiers?

  • 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

So that’s the framework we’ve given. As mentioned, we’re going to try to do as much as we can within each of those tiers. Consular sections that can are going to process at least some cases in each of those tiers, with again the priority being on the first two.

Q: Will Diversity Visa Lottery 2021 Selectees be able to get an interview ahead of that September 30, 2021, deadline?

Diversity visas are definitely a hot topic. We have gotten this question before. Let me start with the good news which is again talking about what I mentioned earlier which is that Proclamation 10014 was recently rescinded. So, for almost the first half of this fiscal year, we were unable to process diversity visas because of that Proclamation. As I’m sure many people that are interested in diversity visas know, that visa program is specific to the fiscal year. So, I can tell you that our colleagues responsible for this program, which is the Kentucky Consular Center (KCC) has begun scheduling documentarily qualified DV applicants. I know we have issued many visas already, and I want to re-iterate that we in the State Department do value the diversity visa program. We’ve scheduled, we’ve processed some cases, and we truly value the diversity visa program, and we are going to do what we can.

That said, as mentioned this pandemic is unpredictable. I mentioned a post where COVID spiked there in the last month. I think you’ve seen spikes in South Asia, and other places. It’s impossible to really forecast how many diversity visas we will issue this year.

I do want to set appropriate expectations and say that it is very likely we won’t issue the full allotment allowed by the statutory ceiling. Those of you that follow the program may be aware, there’s 55,000 DV’s allowed each fiscal year, and that’s the ceiling – we can’t go over that. How close we actually get to that number each year varies year by year. Obviously, last year and this year with the pandemic the circumstances have restricted our ability to get as close to that ceiling as we would like. We are committed to doing as much as possible. As mentioned earlier, we have local conditions and restrictions that will force us to prioritize but at least I can reiterate the good news that we’ve started processing, we’ve started issuing, we’re going to do as much as we can by the end of the fiscal year, but it will not be near the 55,000 allowed by the statute.

Q: Will DV 2020 selectees who were not interviewed prior to September 30, 2020, be interviewed?

That’s a good question as well. I understand the frustration by applicants last year. It’s kind of the flip side of what this year was. The pandemic started halfway through the fiscal year so we were processing very smoothly the first half of the fiscal year, and then just shut down and were unable to get near that statutory ceiling last year.

Going back to what I said earlier, the diversity visa program is a fiscal year program, so applicants who were refused because of that Proclamation I mentioned last year, won’t be, can’t be, really interviewed or reconsidered for visas. The terms of this program and the fact that it is specific to the fiscal year is outlined by statute. It is a black and white answer. It’s an unfortunate answer I know for those that are interested in the program, but that’s the reality.

If you were selected for DV 2020 but could not be interviewed, you can enter future DV lotteries for another chance at selection. There is no guarantee of course. There is a selection process, but the option is there.

Q: How come Immigrant Visa applicants can’t be interviewed virtually, maybe via Zoom or another virtual platform?

That’s another good question. I’ll give you a simple straightforward answer which may not be the most welcome answer but it’s because immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants are required by statute and regulation to appear in person before a Consular officer, so it comes down to statute and regulation.

There are benefits to this process for instance national security remains our top priority when we adjudicate visa applications, each prospective traveler undergoes extensive screening, and as part of that, we have this in-person interview process where our officers not only look at the visa application, but they talk to the applicant, they look at the body language, they figure out what the applicant is saying to make an informed decision about whether the person is eligible, and whether there are any national security related concerns.

Q: Can you talk about K-1 visas specifically and where they are in the priority list?

Yeah. K-1 visas are a priority. Just to review I mentioned four tiers of immigrant visa priority, and for the majority of Consular sections, the interview workload will focus on the first two tiers. Immigrant visas are in that, but fiancé(e) visas are in that as well. If you look on our website, fiancé(e) visas are listed along with spousal visas, immigrant relative visas, in our tier two.

Depending on the posts, the backlogs of these cases may be longer in some places, than others, but fiancé(e) visas are definitely a priority.

Q: For K-1 fiancé(e) cases specifically, the geographic proclamations no longer are applicable to those visas?

Exactly and that is worth reinforcing. Since just last month, early April 7th, neither fiancé(e) visas nor immigrant visa relatives are subject to the geographic Proclamations. There is an exception, a blanket determination that the Secretary made, saying these were National Interest Exceptions, so Consular sections are free to process them, when they can, depending on local circumstances.

Q: Do you know about the status of the KCC backlog, processing DV documents?

I talked with my colleagues there recently and my advice again is just to be patient. They are processing as many cases as they can in the order that they are received and that are documentarily qualified. For those of you that are waiting for scheduling, please wait until you are contacted by the particular Embassy or Consulate that you have asked to be scheduled at.

I’ve also seen other questions that have come up over the last couple weeks about KCC and their leadership has reminded me too, some of you may have asked these questions directly at KCC. If you’re used to calling KCC (Kentucky Consular Center) they basically had to send all staff home due to the pandemic spike, there last September I believe – last fall—so they used to take phone calls. They don’t anymore. Their messaging machines basically point people to emails. As your emailing them, be very patient because not only is there a backlog of immigrant visas, but there is also a backlog of emails for KCC. They will get to them. I would encourage you not to send a second or third follow up email because it adds to the queue. We are working to get as many DV’s scheduled as we can under the circumstances.

Q: Why are there zero interviews scheduled except a few expedite cases on the F-2A category – the spouse of a permanent resident?

As I mentioned earlier, I am not sure if I can get into each specific category because there’s so many factors, but certain posts are able to schedule interviews for family preferences. I understand you had my colleague, Charlie Oppenheim, on the channel the other day, who talked about this and provided a lot more detail in terms of when cases are documentarily qualified and ready for scheduling, and when their numbers are – what we call “current.”

I am not going to go there, but if your case is ready to be scheduled in a particular case it really just comes down to the particular circumstances in that country. Back to our discussion of the tiers, family preference immigrant visas are in the third tier of priority, so our posts will try to do some, but for posts that have backlogs, their emphasis will be on processing through the K-1 fiancé(e) visa cases, the immediate relatives, and those types of cases.

As with many of these cases, I just have to advise patience.

Q: For the tier one category of visa prioritization, do applicants receive their interview letter without waiting for the 1st and 15th of the given month, or will the 2NL be sent with no wait time?

Got you. This goes back to where we have a multi-step process again to talk about. What the National Visa Center (NVC) does is that when the case might be ready to process, typically immediate relatives and spousal cases in the past have been ready to be processed pretty quickly, but certain Consular sections may just not have the space to accept those cases. Going back to the example of the Consular post I talked to last week, where I mentioned they had local staff die and there was a pandemic spike in that particular country, they had said that at least for the next several months they would not be accepting new cases from the NVC.

That’s not because they don’t want to, but because as they reopen for services, they are processing many cases that were actually already at post. When this particular section shut down last year, they still had a number of cases at the post that they had to stop processing. As they have stopped and started over the last year, they’ve started to go through those but there are still a number at post. So, they will work through those and other high priority cases before accepting newly scheduled appointments from NVC. The NVC and each post work closely together. The NVC will ask each post how many cases they can take in a particular month, and they won’t send a case until post X says they can take them.

Q: If I have an I-485 AOS done in October 2020 for EB-3 can I submit my medical exam now before a request is made by USCIS?

Please follow the directions as their given by NVC and USCIS. Without knowing what directions you were given, the answer to that is probably going to be a “no.” The medical examinations usually come later in the process, but you should wait until you are given clear instructions from the particular case, in this case USCIS or from the post.

Q: Do you have any plans of increasing your staff?

That is a great question as well. I’m not the resources guy so I’ll just lay that out front and defer to those places, but I do want to point out and re-iterate some of the points I made earlier. Personally, yes it would be great to have more staff, if I ran the world sure, but this is not purely a staffing issue. Even in a perfect world where that could happen, it takes a significantly long amount of time to train people and get them ready to go out into the field, including language training to adjudicate these cases. More importantly, and more critically to the point, in many of these cases, the backlog has become a perfect storm because of all of these factors that I talked about – the various Presidential Proclamations, the fact that we had a shutdown, and the current circumstances that posts face. Given that perfect storm, it will take us time to work through this. We are working and doing our best. As exemplified by those posts that are not processing any visas right now, it’s going to be a non-linear process.

We will get there as fast and safely as we can. This is just not purely a human resource issue at all.

Q: Do Embassies prioritize medical professionals such as nurses under the EB-3 category?

That’s a great question. EB-3 is one of those categories that is an employment preference category. I mentioned earlier that both family preference, employment preference, and diversity visas are in tiers three and four out of our four-tier prioritization. We recognize the importance of medical professionals. Our posts are doing the best they can to process them and as many applications as they can, but it’s a balancing game. There are certain exceptions. If a professional is coming to help with the fight against COVID specifically, and has specific skills and emphasis in that area, that may be a different question. But all employment-based preference-cases are in the lower tier of priority. Again, we are not saying we are not processing them at all, we are doing some where we can.

I should also say that we have this prioritization schedule but at some point – and there are posts like this already – there are posts that are basically through their particular backlog. For instance, there are no fiancé(e) visas, no immediate relative visas, they have no cases that are normally thought of as tier one or tier two. For these particular posts, they are back to routine services, so they are fully able to process not only the employment-based medical cases, but also the professionals visa categories as fully as they used to. It really depends on each particular Consular section.

Q: Is it possible to maintain or go back to the regular capacity of interview processing by providing a negative COVID test report within 72 hours?

That’s a very good question and I applaud the creative thinking. Unfortunately, our Consular sections are following CDC guidelines for social distancing and all of that internally as we snake people through our waiting rooms and determine how to schedule. Again, going back to what I said, each Consular section is operating in a unique environment in a specific locale, and each of these locales have their own rules and their own regulations on what they can do and what they can process, in terms of how many people can be present in a building, etc.

Our diplomatic missions have to follow local guidelines, local rules, and local policies as well. While we can make rules about incoming flights to our country, we are still subject to the rules, regulations, and restrictions of the countries that we operate in.

Q: Why would Consulates not book IR-1 and CR-1 interviews? It seems that in May of 2021 quite a few Consular sections were not prioritizing these particular categories.

Again, IR-1 are immediate relatives, so without knowing the specific circumstances or post you are talking about, I can say that they are in one of the top two tiers of immigrant visa priorities as immediate relatives of U.S. Citizens. Our posts, when they can, will prioritize them. Again, going back to our theme of patience, patience, patience, and the theme of “it depends.” Every single circumstance is different depending on which Consulate or which city you reside in.

I can say that this guidance that we have talked about, we have re-iterated to the field in multiple messages, multiple calls. They know it, they are following it. If you think your situation is not being addressed for some reason, rest assured, that they have you on the list. They are doing as much as they can in that particular locale. The list is probably long, and the circumstances may prevent full processing of immediate relatives, but they will work through the list in the order that they have them.  They will work through these cases as efficiently and safely as possible.

Q: Have you actually ordered all Embassies to resume Immigrant Visa processing and what are you doing to ensure that the posts are following orders?

That’s a great question. No actually. In terms of ordering them. What we’ve done, let me reiterate the guidance that I’ve been talking about. Let me state clearly health and safety first. The priority is the health and safety of our applicants, it’s the health and safety of our staff, it’s the health and safety of everyone that comes into contact at the Embassy. It’s also as we said following local rules and regulations, and restrictions that might be in place. We cannot order a Consular section overseas to proceed if it’s unsafe, if the pandemic is still widespread, if there’s local regulations, local restrictions, local quarantine programs in effect.

What I can say though is we’ve been very very clear about telling Embassies and Consulates that as it is safe to reopen, they must follow the prioritization guidance that we have laid out and is publicly available on our website. My team and others in the field operations office are in constant communication with our Consular sections to help answer questions, provide guidance, and also to make sure that they are following the prioritization schedule that we have laid out. I can assure you in our discussions, that they understand the prioritization schedule, they’re following that, and if they’re capable they are participating in our efforts to get this backlog reduced as quickly and as safely as possible. Please be patient, we understand the frustration, it Is not an easy situation for any of us, let alone the petitioners and beneficiaries in these applications. We value these applications and we are doing our best to get through them.

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