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On the edge of the visa abyss

Well, it was fun while it lasted. Four weeks ago I walked into a busy consular section in Berlin—so busy, in fact, that I started adjudicating after only a few hours of observing my colleague “at the window.”


Between the summer rush (students and high school kids going to the U.S.) and the tedious work created by COVID traveling restrictions for almost all visa categories, there was plenty to do. Our email inboxes full of questions from travelers even more bewildered than us, we came up with new standards and processes on the fly and worked through our lunch breaks to catch up.


Two weeks later, the work has all but dried up. Basically the only visa applicants we interview now are straggling students from Sweden. Anyone else either has a family crisis in the U.S. or a job to get back to. These days, nobody is waking up to the brilliant new idea of visiting our beautiful country just for the fun of it—we’re in the midst of a pandemic, after all.

Already, the consequences of the pandemic for consular work are becoming apparent. Our revenue is projected to be halved this year and even that’s somewhat optimistic. Hiring new people or paying contractors to assist us with the intake of applicants is now impossible. It’s so bad that we’re thinking about closing the door on some days because it may save costs.

From an objective point of view, however, it’s fascinating to see how a small policy shift (stopping certain groups of people traveling directly from the Schengen area to the U.S. due to COVID) creates such pandemonium.

Suddenly, families are separated—we get desperate emails from parents begging to see the birth of their own child, to “babysit” their own kid, or to pay their last respects a close relative in the hospital. People worry they can’t complete their projects, get their start-up off the ground, engage in cutting edge scientific research, see their newly built house in Florida, or coach elite esports players (yes, Fortnite).

We also experience the wrath of unsuspecting travelers with valid visas stopped at the airport (because not everybody follows the news). The rest is stressed out because their travel plans were only recently made or changed. Some people display great self control and are even graceful about it all, but the larger group is either nervous, confused, annoyed, or a mixture of those things.

It’s easy to see your own workplace as a microcosm of the world—a shortsighted yet entertaining thing I do often. For now, it’s a doom scenario. We’re running out of work and money, and we have no control over what happens next. Thinking into the future only introduces the uncomfortable thought that people might indeed travel less in the future. Unless something, or someone, flips the switch again before we forgot what a world without social distancing looked like.