The new consular work
Okay, maybe my conclusion was a little rash in my last post on visa work—there’s no lack of visa applications after all. While COVID-19 makes it much harder for people from the Schengen area (Europe) to travel to the U.S., lots of people still apply for new visas or waivers that allow them to travel on the visa or ESTA they already have. We’re still busy.
Or to be more precise: I’m busy. Because for the past two weeks, I was the only consular officer in the visa office who was qualified to adjudicate visas. I was doing interviews in the morning and waiver requests in the afternoon, and dealt with all kinds of tricky cases in between.
The thing is, COVID has really upended our system. Visa work was relatively easy before because most Germans can travel to the U.S. on visa waivers. Only a small portion of the population needed to come in for a visa and those cases were fairly straightforward because fraud was low and most applicants had good reasons to travel—mostly business.
German visa applicants are pretty great because they generally fall within one of the following categories: doctor; scientist; engineer; pilot; high school exchange student; journalist; or diplomat. Also, we see a large number of factory machine technicians and Florida home-owners.
But now that most visa categories are heavily restricted from traveling to the U.S. we see a lot more variety, which is made even more difficult by the fact that there are lots of new rules to determine if someone is allowed to travel. Right now the number of challenges we face to provide good service are growing because:
We have fewer people in the office than we normally have.
We have to process waivers (for the new rules that restrict travel) for almost anyone allowed to travel from Germany to the U.S.
There are more emergency appointments than usual because people who have an urgent reason to travel would normally use an ESTA (not a visa) but now need to go through us.
There are many more people applying for visas from other countries because certain consulates in Europe have shut down or run at low capacity.
Lots of rules and procedures are new, which means we have to learn them and, ideally, coordinate with other consulates (particularly in Germany) how we implement and create some coherence.
Many visa applicants are unsure about their travel options and need coaching from us in order to apply for the correct visa or waiver.
Conclusion: we did not run out of work because of COVID-19 nor do we run the risk of getting bored anytime soon. In fact, the longer this situation is going on the more things we have to do to channel the work and make it manageable. Also, I get the feeling that people wanting to travel to the U.S. are tired of waiting for the pandemic to pass—they want to go even if the risk and the costs are high.