Hundreds of anonymous posts fly in every day on a Facebook group filled with nearly 25,000 South Asians looking to travel to the US.
“I am looking for a B1/B2 visa appointment for next year,” one person wrote.
Dozens of commenters under the appeal, “Me too,” “I’m looking for my family,” “The earliest I’ve seen is for 2025.”
The mass strife, according to experts, is the result of record-length waiting times by Indian citizens when trying to obtain tourist visas to the US.
Wait times at American consulates in India range from a few months to several years just to warrant a meeting. A simple visit for the holiday season can sometimes require almost three years of advanced planning for someone who doesn’t already have a visa.
Immigration economists say that beyond the personal harm this does to families, inaccessibility has the potential to deter Indian immigration to the United States in general.
“This is clearly a broken system,” said Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, whose research focuses on migration. “Grandparents haven’t been able to see their grandchildren for four years because of covid, and now they can’t get visas. This affects how welcoming the Indian diaspora is in the US ‘If my family can’t come to visit us, I don’t think my life in the US is as fulfilling as I was promised.’”
According to figures released by the US State Department, the waiting time for a tourist visa interview in some Indian cities such as Chennai and Hyderabad is 999 days, well above the global median waiting time of two months. The wait in Kolkata is 959 days. Other consulates only make appointments for emergency tourist visas, and experts suspect these visas also have a shorter workload.
“Pure management, from an organizational point of view, looks like a completely dysfunctional system,” Khanna said.
NBC News reached out to the State Department and received no response. In a statement released last month, they acknowledged extended wait times around the world.
“The State Department is successfully reducing visa interview waiting times worldwide,” the statement said. “We have doubled our US Foreign Service staff recruitment to do this important work, visa processing is recovering faster than anticipated, and we expect to reach pre-pandemic visa processing levels in Fiscal Year 2023 (FY).”
According to Julia Gelatt, a senior analyst at the Immigration Policy Institute, the turmoil stems from travel moratoriums and hiring freezes during the peak of the epidemic, which has caused thousands of visas to be delayed. The State Department cites the personnel issues it’s trying to fix, but Gelatt says it won’t be a quick process.
“The State Department says they are doubling their hiring and training staff,” Gelatt said. “But serving in consulates takes some time because they teach Americans new languages and give them a lot of training before they are appointed to their posts.”
But the Covid explanation is not satisfactory for Khanna.
“Many countries have had backlogs and staffing issues related to Covid,” he said. “At one point staffing issue is a sign of dysfunction… Getting a visa from the US to India is pretty easy. People only need to wait a few weeks. But the reverse takes too long. It shows that efficient systems for issuing visas can exist.”
As consular backlogs continue to grow and current appointments stretch years later, some are taking matters into their own hands. Khanna observed that on Facebook and WhatsApp, some South Asian organizations offer people a back channel to their earlier conversation times.
Dozens of social media groups dedicated to solving visa issues have sprung up this year alone, as executives flaunt their successful early interview appointments and encourage members to directly message them for help. Often marketed as “visa advice” or “early date interview assistance,” these companies book upcoming appointments in large numbers, then sell the slots to desperate travelers who want to cancel and spend the money, Khanna said.
“This, again, is a sign that there is something wrong with the system here,” he said. “People who come in contact with these groups can pay a lot of money to get an appointment faster. This really exacerbates the problem. But people are willing to pay.”
Khanna says they take advantage of the lack of clarity behind the processes and complications that often arise when trying to obtain even a short-stay US visa.
Khanna said it adds another financial barrier to the entry of low-income South Asians trying to visit the US.
“It’s not fair,” he said. Consulates say it’s a staffing issue. Essentially, it’s just another way of saying ‘we didn’t act together’. It’s not an excuse in any way.”
Families will continue to go without seeing each other for years, Khanna said, and America’s image of a haven for Indian immigrants has the potential to be tarnished.
“In this situation, they leave their families on the other side of the world, and now it’s hard for their families to come to visit,” he said. “This has implications that are not just tourism related. Diaspora has effects on the places it wants to settle. Do we want to be in a place like the USA where our family finds it so difficult to visit?