Amid growing concerns of surging COVID-19 cases, the US has announced that it will waive the in-person interview requirement for a range of visa applicants during the entire year in 2022, including for H-1B workers and students, many of whom are from India.
The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in speciality occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise.
Technology companies depend on it to hire tens of thousands of employees each year from countries like India and China.
The Department of State on Thursday announced that consular officers are now temporarily authorised, through December 31, 2022, to waive in-person interviews for certain individual petition-based nonimmigrant work visas and their qualifying derivatives in the following categories: Persons in Specialty Occupations (H-1B visas), Trainee or Special Education Visitors (H-3 visas), Intracompany Transferees (L visas), Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement (O visas), Athletes, Artists, and Entertainers (P visas), and Participants in International Cultural Exchange Programmes (Q visas).
Additionally, the Secretary of State has extended consular officers' current ability to waive the in-person interview, through December 31, 2022, for the following other categories of nonimmigrant visas: Temporary Agricultural and Non-agricultural Workers (H-2 visas), Students (F and M visas), and Student Exchange Visitors (Academic J visas), the press release said.
Embassies and consulates may still require an in-person interview on a case-by-case basis and dependent upon local conditions. Applicants should check embassy and consulate websites for more detailed information about this development, as well as current operating status and services, it said.
The state department said, "it recognises the many contributions of international visitors to our communities and campuses and the positive impact of temporary work visa holders on the US economy and is committed to facilitating nonimmigrant travel and reducing visa wait times."
The State Department also said it has extended indefinitely the authorisation to waive the in-person interview for applicants renewing a visa in the same visa class within 48 months of the prior visa's expiration.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in profound reductions in the Department's visa processing capacity. As global travel rebounds, the US is taking these temporary steps to further commitment to safely and efficiently reduce visa wait times while maintaining national security as our priority, it added.
The coronavirus pandemic had prompted the US to close its borders to international travellers from many countries, including India, last year. Later, only passengers holding visas belonging to certain categories were permitted to travel.
From November 8, the US lifted all restrictions for fully vaccinated international travellers, including from India, but they will have to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight to the country.
The new authorisation also applies to temporary workers applying for H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q visas who meet certain conditions, including that they are applying for a visa in their country of nationality or residence, the press release said.
Under this authority, consular officers have discretion to waive the visa interview requirement for individual petition-based H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q applicants who were previously issued any type of visa, and who have never been refused a visa unless such refusal was overcome or waived, and who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility; or first-time individual petition-based H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q who are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), provided they have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility and have previously travelled to the United States using an authorization obtained via the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA).
The US is witnessing an astronomical surge in the Omicron variant, with infections jumping to 73 per cent of all Covid cases in the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in omicron's share of infections in only one week.
Scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about Omicron less than a month ago and on November 26 the WHO designated it as a variant of concern." The mutant has since shown up in about 90 countries, including in India.
Much about the Omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness.
The total number of coronavirus cases in the US stand at 51,814,812 and 815,423 people have died due to the virus, according to the latest data by Johns Hopkins University.