On July 21, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee held a hearing examining the State Department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Witnesses included:
- Ian Brownlee, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State
- Karin King, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Overseas Citizen Services, U.S. Department of State
Upon request of committee staff, NAFSA provided questions to be asked of the witnesses regarding the resumption of visa services, international travel, and how the Department can better coordinate with other government agencies to ensure international students and scholars are able to enter the U.S. this fall.
As the hearing focused specifically on the State Department’s actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, questions regarding the July 6 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidance, which was issued by the Department of Homeland Security, were limited.
Representative Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) asked how many students were denied visas between July 6-14 due to the guidance, and whether those denied students would be notified that they could reapply. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Brownlee did not have the necessary data and noted he would get back to the Congressman with a response.
Representative Malinowski also inquired about the possibility of waiving the personal appearance requirement for students and scholars, an approach urged by NAFSA in an effort to help streamline visa processing:
Representative Malinowski: But what about waiving the in-person requirement, you've done that apparently?
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Brownlee: We've done this with regard to certain workers, for example, the agricultural workers coming out of Mexico, the H-2As.
Representative Malinowski: Why not students and scholars, why not other categories?
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Brownlee: We would be happy to take the question under advisement, sir. Specifically, with regard to those constituents, we are looking at everything we can do to get visa operations moving as quickly as possible.
Much of the hearing focused on the repatriation efforts made by the State Department to assist U.S. citizens who were abroad at the time travel bans were being implemented around the world as documented COVID-19 cases began to spike. Representative Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who chairs the subcommittee, noted the Department worked to bring over 100,000 Americans home from 136 different countries and territories.
Many members of the subcommittee expressed appreciation to the witnesses for helping their constituents. Deputy Assistant Secretary King shared that, in the event a repatriation effort was to happen again, the Department would direct embassies to reach out to their host governments immediately to ascertain their plans for closing borders to get more advanced notice than was provided in many cases last spring.
Deputy Assistant Secretary King also shared that her office is working closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in reviewing when U.S. citizens will be able to travel internationally, stating she is hoping the Department will be able to move from the Global Level 4 Health Advisory, Do Not Travel, back to the typical country-specific travel advisory format “in the near future.” She confirmed they were following CDC’s lead in reviewing local conditions and ensuring their travel advisories would reflect the latest data for each country.
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Brownlee also noted that the Department is projected to lose $1.4 billion this year due to a 50% drop in visa and passport fee revenue. Later in the hearing, he noted they were already facing budget issues due to the “systemic decline in visa demand that was taking place even before the COVID crisis hit.”