The State Department will begin allowing some work-visa holders to renew their visas without leaving the country, a department official said Friday.
Employees working in the U.S. on H-1B or L-1 visas will be permitted to renew their status domestically under a pilot program the State Department hopes to launch later this year. H-1B visas, popular with the tech industry, are intended for foreigners with college degrees working in high-skilled occupations, while L-1 visas are used by foreign managers whose companies transfer them to the U.S.
The official couldn’t confirm how many renewal applicants the pilot program will be able to accommodate. Bloomberg Government first reported the news of the pilot program.
The pilot program comes as layoffs have rippled through the tech industry in recent months and have hit H-1B visa holders particularly hard, with tens of thousands of foreign workers estimated to have been affected. The pilot program for visa renewals wouldn’t apply to laid off H-1B workers, who must leave the U.S. after 60 days if they can’t find new employment or are unable to apply to transfer to another visa.
For the last two decades, temporary visa holders have been required to travel to a U.S. consulate abroad to renew their visa. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when the State Department slowed its visa operations abroad, extreme bottlenecks at consulates meant that many visa holders would leave the country, only to get stuck because of a lack of available visa appointments. The issue has been particularly acute in India, the source of the majority of employees in the U.S. on H-1B visas, where appointments are routinely booked up more than a year out.
Business groups and immigration lawyers have for years been urging the State Department to allow such visa holders, who have already been vetted to enter the U.S., to be allowed to complete renewals domestically.
Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the program would help cut down on bottlenecks abroad.
“We’re encouraged by this pilot program’s announcement,” Mr. Baselice said. “Visa interview delays are still causing a significant amount of disruption for businesses of all sizes and across a host of industries.”
Domestic visa renewals were discontinued in 2004 after security concerns were raised following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. State Department officials have since said reintroducing the service will prove a heavy lift, because they will need to hire new consular officers in Washington and set up new systems.