Indictments For Alleged Large-Scale Visa Fraud Employment Scheme

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On April 20, USDOJ announced the indictment of two businesses and nine of their officers and managers for an alleged large-scale visa fraud employment scheme. Excerpt from the announcement:

An indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Georgia has been unsealed charging two businesses and nine of their officers and managers located across the country for their roles in an alleged conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and commit various fraud and criminal immigration offenses for profit.

According to court documents, Regal Hospitality Solutions, LLC; Educational World, Inc.; Karen Makaryan, 42, Sargis Makaryan, 42, and Samvel Nikoghosyan, 40, of Destrehan, La.; Artur Grigoryan, 38, of Biloxi, Miss.; Armen Ayrapetyan, 37, of Duluth, Ga.; Jason Hill, 28, of Virginia Beach, Va.; Fremie Balbastro, 49, of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Larisa Khariton, 73, and Jon Clark, 71, of North Port, Fla., were charged in a 36-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury on April 8. Each defendant was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud and commit offenses against the United States, including encouraging and inducing an alien to reside in the United States, alien harboring, transporting aliens, and visa fraud.  Each defendant also was charged with substantive counts of encouraging and inducing an alien to reside in the United States, alien harboring, and transportation of aliens. In addition, Regal Hospitality Solutions, LLC; Karen Makaryan; Sargis Makaryan; Samvel Nikoghosyan; Artur Grigoryan; Armen Ayrapetyan; Fremie Balbastro; and Jason Hill were also charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 10 counts of wire fraud.

“The defendants in this case allegedly engaged in an expansive conspiracy to enrich themselves by exploiting both the immigration system and noncitizen workers,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicholas L. McQuaid of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “Systemic fraud and abuse of U.S. visa programs and processes designed to protect American workers and businesses will not be tolerated, and offenders will be held accountable.”
[…]
“The Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs aims to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange,” said Acting Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Robert Smolich of the U.S. Department of State, Office of Inspector General, Office of Investigations. “When bad actors corrupt these programs for personal gain, it not only diminishes an important tool of diplomacy, it harms the thousands of individuals who participate in these programs hoping to gain skills and experience to make a better life. Today we took a step forward in restoring integrity back to those programs.”

“These defendants’ alleged scheme to game the immigration system and defraud the government has backfired and they will now be held accountable,” said Special Agent in Charge Katrina W. Berger of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Georgia and Alabama. “Schemes like this not only exploit the noncitizen workers involved, they also damage the other legitimate businesses in the community. Protecting the integrity of the visa program and immigration system is vital to the security of our nation.”
[…]
Individual defendants have made their initial court appearances and the arraignment of all defendants will be scheduled before U.S. Magistrate Judge Benjamin W. Cheesbro of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. If convicted, the individual defendants face maximum potential statutory penalties of five years in prison on the count of conspiracy to defraud and commit offenses against the United States; 10 years in prison on the counts of encouraging and inducing an alien to reside in the United States, alien harboring, and transportation of aliens; and 20 years in prison on the counts of wire fraud conspiracy and substantive wire fraud. The organizational defendants are subject to a maximum fine on each count of conviction of $500,000 or twice the gross amount of gain or loss resulting from the offense. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The U.S. Department of State Office of Inspector General is investigating the case with assistance provided by HSI and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Trial Attorneys Frank Rangoussis and John-Alex Romano of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alejandro V. Pascual IV of the Southern District of Georgia are prosecuting the case.

An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Read the full announcement here.

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Snapshot: Visas Issued at Foreign Service Posts (FY 2016-2020)

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Via state.gov

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FSO Jennifer Davis’ Security Clearance Revocation, a Very Curious Leak

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On April 9, Politico published an odd piece about the revocation of a Foreign Service officer’s security clearance.

“A top aide to the U.S. envoy to the United Nations has stepped aside after her security clearance was revoked, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Jennifer Davis, the de facto chief of staff to Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is a career Foreign Service officer who has worked at the State Department for 18 years, with previous postings in Colombia, Mexico and Turkey.”

The report says that the revocation came after a three-year investigation by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Davis served a three year tour as Consul General in Istanbul, Turkey from August 2016 to August 2019.

“In that role, she had a conversation with a reporter, Amberin Zaman of the Middle Eastern-focused news outlet Al-Monitor, about the problem of local staff being hassled and detained by Turkish authorities, according to the person close to her.

Zaman reported at the time that the Turkish pressure campaign was likely to expedite U.S. government plans to use visa sanctions to block certain Turkish officials from visiting the U.S. and said that a list of such officials had been drafted, citing “sources close to the Donald Trump administration.” Not only did she speak to Zaman with the knowledge and at the direction of her superior, according to the person close to Davis, the information she shared was “not at all sensitive” and was declassified soon after their discussion.”

The report further states that Davis spoke to Zaman “with the knowledge and at the direction of her superior” citing a person close to Davis. And that the information Davis shared “was not at all sensitive”  and it was reportedly declassified soon after the discussion occurred.
Security clearance revocations do not make news very often. The investigating office is often mum about the revocation and the subject of the security clearance investigation/revocation is often not able to talk about it. Unless they write about it. Or unless officials leaked it to the press, of course.
At least three people spoke to Politico: the “two people familiar with the matter” and “a person close to Davis who said that “Davis will “strongly contests the determination” and is “going to aggressively appeal this decision as quickly as possible.”
Nearly 1.4 million people hold “top secret” clearance. So why is the Davis case news?  We do not know, as yet, who stands to gain by the public revelation of this revocation. But see, this is making us well, perplexed and very curious.
Let’s try and see a public timeline of what happened prior to the reported revocation.
October 2017: In the fall of 2017, Turkey arrested a local national working at the US Consulate General Istanbul.
The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey during the first two arrests of US Mission employees (one in Adana, one in Istanbul) was John Bass who served from October 2014 to October 2017. Prior to the conclusion of his tenure in Turkey, the US Mission suspended visa services, a specific action taken by the U.S. Government over the Turkish Government’s treatment of U.S. Mission employees in Turkey. Ambassador Bass issued a statement about the arrests of two veteran employees of the U.S. Government in Turkey.
October 2017 – Chief of Mission to Chargé d’Affaires in Turkey
Philip Kosnett assumed the duties of Chargé d’Affaires in October 2017 upon the conclusion of Ambassador John Bass’ assignment in Turkey. He began his assignment as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey in July 2016.  In July 2018, he was nominated by Trump to be U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo.  He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in September 2018, and presented his credentials in Pristina in December 2018. That’s still his current assignment. Kosnett’s tenure as Chargé d’Affaires at US Mission Turkey was from October 2017 to on/around July 2018.
November 2017: Michael Evanoff was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security under the Trump Administration. He served in that capacity until his resignation in July 2020.
December 2017: U.S., Turkey mutually lift visa restrictions, ending months-long row
January 2018: A second local employe of U.S. Consulate General Istanbul was arrested.
On January 31, 2018, USCG Istanbul local employee Nazmi Mete Cantürk turned himself in to Turkish authorities and was placed under house arrest.  It was previously reported that in 2017, his wife and child were detained Oct. 9 in the Black Sea province of Amasya for alleged links to the Gülen network. He was the third USG employee arrested by the Government of Turkey.
The two arrests in Istanbul followed a previous arrest of a local employee at the U.S. Consulate in Adana in February 2017. Turkish authorities detained Hamza Uluçay, a 36-year veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate on unsubstantiated terrorism charges.
February 2018: Journalist Amberin Zaman published an article via Al-Monitor.
On February 1, 2018, a day after a second Consulate employee was put under house arrest by the Turkish Government,  Zaman published “Turkey resumes pressure on US Consulate staff” for Al-Monitor. This  was the article that reportedly spurned the investigation. Excerpt below:

“Turkey has reneged on its pledge to not hound locally employed staff at US missions on its soil, with police interrogating a Turkish citizen working for the US Consulate in Istanbul yesterday, Al-Monitor has learned. The move could likely accelerate the US administration’s plans to apply targeted visa sanctions against Turkish officials deemed to be involved in the unlawful detentions of US Consulate staff, provided that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives final approval, sources close to the Donald Trump administration told Al-Monitor.”

March 2018: Rex Tillerson, the 69th Secretary of State was fired.
A few weeks after the publication of the Zaman article, Rex Tillerson was fired from the State Department and left Foggy Bottom for the last time on March 22, 2018. His inner circle staffers followed him to the exit by end of that month. Also see Trump Dumps Tillerson as 69th Secretary of State, to Appoint CIA’s Pompeo as 70th SoS.

Continue reading

Ex-FSO Indicted For Concealing Information in Background Investigation

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On April 2, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of a former State Department employee, a Foreign Service officer for “intentionally concealing information on his SF-86 background investigation questionnaires and in interviews with State Department background investigators.”
Congressional record indicates that a Paul M. Guertin of RI was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by voice vote on October 21, 2011  for his appointment as Foreign Service Officer of Class Four, Consular Officer and Secretary in the Diplomatic Service of the United States of America.
 Via USDOJ: Former State Department Employee Indicted for Concealing Information in Background Investigation

Paul Michael Guertin (“Guertin”), 40, of Arizona and former resident of Washington, DC, was indicted on March 29, 2021 by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia for wire fraud and obstructing an official proceeding. The indictment was announced by Acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips and Special Agent in Charge Elisabeth Heller, of the U.S. Department of State, Office of Inspector General.

Guertin was a Foreign Service Officer who served on multiple State Department assignments, including overseas postings to U.S. diplomatic missions in Shanghai, China and Islamabad, Pakistan, and a posting to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at State Department headquarters in Washington, DC. As a condition of his employment, Guertin was required to apply for and maintain a Top Secret security clearance.  According to the indictment, Guertin intentionally concealed information on his SF-86 background investigation questionnaires and in interviews with State Department background investigators. He withheld information about several categories of conduct, including an undisclosed sexual relationship with a Chinese national, whose U.S. visa application was adjudicated by Guertin while he was serving as a consular officer in Shanghai, China; undisclosed gambling debts; and an undisclosed $225,000 loan from two Chinese nationals, who were directed by Guertin to provide $45,000 of the initial disbursement in the form of cash in $100 bills.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence of guilt.  A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

This matter was investigated by the U.S. Department of State, Office of Inspector General and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christopher Brown and Thomas Gillice, with assistance from Paralegal Specialist Chad Byron.

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SF-86 form clearly states under Penalties for Inaccurate or False Statements that “the U.S. Criminal Code (title 18, section 1001) provides that knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five (5) years imprisonment.”
According to the indictment, the Grand Jury was sworn in on January 28, 2021. The indictment includes two offenses: Count One: 18 U.S.C. § 1343: (Wire fraud); Count Two: 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2) (Obstructing an official proceeding) plus Forfeiture: 18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(1)(C); 28 U.S.C. § 2461(c); 21 U.S.C. § 853(p) according to the court filing. Grand juries are composed of 16 to 23 citizens, who hear a wide range of criminal cases and decide whether there is evidence to justify indictments sought by federal prosecutors. To return an indictment, a minimum of 12 members of a grand jury must find probable cause.
Excerpts below from the indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:

3. During his tenure as a Foreign Service Officer, GUERTIN served on multiple State Department assignments abroad, including postings to diplomatic missions in Shanghai, China and Islamabad, Pakistan. GUERTIN also served at State Department headquarters in the District of
Columbia in the Bureau of Intelligence & Research (“INR”), the State Department’s intelligence office. GUERTIN was later assigned to language training in Taipei, Taiwan.

9. In connection with his initial employment with the State Department and periodic re-investigations, GUERTIN signed and submitted SF-86 forms on or about September 27, 2005; November 19, 2010; and April 3, 2016.

The indictment cites Guertin’s “undisclosed conduct” that includes Undisclosed Romantic Relationship with Chinese National Whose U.S. Visa Application GUERTIN Adjudicated; Undisclosed Financial Problems Due to Gambling; and Undisclosed $225,000 Loan Agreement with Two Chinese Nationals, Collateralized by GUERTIN’s House. The indictment also cites some electronic communication.

15. In or about June 2008, GUERTIN conducted a visa application interview with CHINESE NATIONAL 1 in his capacity as a consular officer at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, China. On or about June 11, 2008, GUERTIN favorably adjudicated CHINESE NATIONAL 1’s application for a U.S. visa.

16. Two days later, on or about June 13, 2008, GUERTIN sent CHINESE NATIONAL1 an e-mail stating: “I gave you an interview a few days ago here in Shanghai, and thought you were very cute and interesting! 🙂 Was wondering if you’d be interested in going out for dinner or a bite to eat sometime.” GUERTIN initiated a personal and sexual relationship with CHINESE NATIONAL 1 that lasted through at least in or about July 2009.

26. On or about July 13, 2015, GUERTIN sent an e-mail to an associate requesting an emergency loan of $10,000 in order to pay down his gambling debts in advance of his security clearance re-investigation. GUERTIN stated: “I desperately need 10 dimes to get my [stuff] in order and pass a security clearance review to hold onto my job.” GUERTIN further explained: “Every 5 years the State Dept. does a security clearance re-investigation, and mine is coming up in 3 months, and they’re for sure going to see that my credit score dropped hard from the last time they checked. That will cause them to get suspicious, and then they’ll search my bank account transactions and find all the gambling related [stuff]. . . . [t]hey’1l send me home from Taiwan and if they revoke my security clearance I’Il lose my job within 6 months.”

30. On or about April 15, 2015, GUERTIN directed CHINESE NATIONAL 2 and CHINESE NATIONAL 3 to meet him at a location in the District of Columbia for the purpose of withdrawing $45,000 in cash from their bank account for a further disbursement of the $225,000 loan. GUERTIN instructed them: “Also please ask the bank manager to give you as much as possible of the money in $100 bills so it’s not so ridiculously bulky to carry around and deposit, thx!”

The indictment does not indicate what happened in August 2017 when his employment apparently ended. It is also not clear when and for how long was he posted at INR.
The indictment does not explain Guertin’s relationship with the two Chinese nationals only referred to as Chinese National 2 and Chinese National 3.  Guertin was posted in Shanghai in 2008 which would have been a two-year tour. The loan agreement with the two Chinese nationals allegedly occurred in April 2015. We should learn more if  this case progresses in court.
USA v. Guertin was assigned to Judge Trevor N. McFadden in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. As this article notes, an indictment is not a statement of guilt — it is only a determination that enough evidence exists to move forward with charges. The defendant will have an opportunity to enter a plea. As of this writing, no initial appearance has been noted in court, and no plea has been entered.

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@StateDept Expands Interview Waiver Eligibility For Visas

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On March 11, the State Department announced in a brief statement the expansion of visa interview waiver eligibility:
Secretary Blinken, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has temporarily expanded the ability of consular officers to waive the in-person interview requirement for individuals applying for a nonimmigrant visa in the same classification.  Previously, only those applicants whose nonimmigrant visa expired within 24 months were eligible for an interview waiver.  The Secretary has temporarily extended the expiration period to 48 months.  This policy is in effect until December 31, 2021.  This change will allow consular officers to continue processing certain nonimmigrant visa applications while limiting the number of applicants who must appear at a consular section, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission to other applicants and consular staff.  Travelers are encouraged to review the website of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for detailed information on what services are currently available as well as eligibility information and instructions on applying for a visa without an interview. 
The original announcement is available here.

via travel.state.gov

 


 

@StateDept Projects Over $1.4Billion Loss in Consular Fees This Fiscal Year, Plus Comparable Losses Next FYs

HFAC/Oversight and Investigations Committee
July 212020 10:00 AM
Witnesses

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

The State Department projected a $1.4 billion loss which is about 50 percent of Consular Affair’s revenue this fiscal year (ending September 30, 2020). It is also facing comparable losses in FY2021 and FY2022.
This is a big deal.
PDAS Brownlee told the committee that CA is looking at $359M savings from FY2020  — he talked about significant reduction in this year’s spending but only cited contractors in visa waiting rooms, and a number other unspecified projects domestic and overseas that would be impacted. He did say that services for American citizens “will not be put out of business.”
Where are we going to see funding cuts?
The reality though is consular fees do not just fund visa operations overseas but also passport operations domestic and overseas. It also funds various parts of the State Department. And most notably, it funds 4,859 U.S. Direct Hire personnel under Consular Affairs and “partner bureau positions.” A $1.4 billion loss this fiscal year and in each of FY2021 and FY2022 will have a cascading effect in various parts of the organization.
Revenues from Department-retained consular fees and surcharges fund Consular and Border Security Program (CBSP) activities. The State Department’s congressional justification in FY 2020 for CBSP funding includes the following:
  • Consular Systems and Technology: $453.4 million
  • Domestic Executive Support: $34.3 million
  • Fraud Prevention Programs: $5.4 million
  • Visa Processing: $237.5 million
  • Passport Directorate: $810.3 million
  • American Citizen Services: $16.2 million
  • Consular Affairs Overseas Support: $964.6 million
  • FSN Separation Liability Trust Fund: $4.9 million

CBSP SUPPORT/DEPARTMENT OF STATE PARTNERS: $524.3 million

  • Bureau of Administration: $53.8 million
  • Bureau of Diplomatic Security: $66.3 million
  • Foreign Service Institute: $25.9 million
  • Bureau of Information Resource Management: $58.3 million
  • Office of the Legal Advisor: $0.3 million
  • Bureau of Overseas Building Operations: $264.4 million
  • Repatriation Loans: $0.8 million
  • Comptroller and Global Financial Services (CGFS): $1.0 million
  • Confidential Investigations: $0.2 million
  • Post Assignment Travel: $39.1 million
  • Bureau of Human Resources: $13.9 million
CBSP STAFF / AMERICAN SALARIES: $703.5 million

Human resources are a vital component of CBSP activities. The Department devotes a significant amount of effort and resources towards increasing efficiency and capacity in the visa and passport processes, ensuring adequate staffing levels both domestically and overseas. The FY 2020 Request of $703.5 million, a $58.7 million increase from the FY 2019 Request, supports 4,859 U.S. Direct Hire personnel. These positions are primarily in the Bureau of Consular Affairs but also include CBSP-funded partner bureau positions. This increase restores the eight percent reduction included in the FY 2019 President’s Budget Request and annualizes costs associated with the Department’s FY 2018 and proposed FY 2019 Strategic Hiring Plans.

 

 

 

@StateDept Announces “National Interest Exceptions” for Certain Travelers from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland

Via State/CA:
National Interest Exceptions for Certain Travelers from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland
Last Updated: July 16, 2020

Certain business travelers, investors, treaty traders, academics, and students may qualify for National Interest Exceptions under Presidential Proclamations (PPs) 9993 (Schengen Area) and 9996 (United Kingdom and Ireland). Qualified business and student travelers who are applying for or have valid visas or ESTA authorization may travel to the United States even as PPs 9993 and 9996 remain in effect.

Students traveling from the Schengen Area, the UK, and Ireland with valid F-1 and M-1 visas, do not need to seek a national interest exception to travel. Students from those areas who are traveling on a J-1 may contact the nearest embassy or consulate to initiate an exception request.The Department of State also continues to grant National Interest Exceptions for qualified travelers seeking to enter the United States for purposes related to humanitarian travel, public health response, and national security.

Granting national interest exceptions for this travel to the United States from the Schengen area, UK, and Ireland, will assist with the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and bolster key components of our transatlantic relationship.

We appreciate the transparency and concerted efforts of our European partners and allies to combat this pandemic and welcome the EU’s reciprocal action to allow key categories of essential travel to continue.

Also see: Exceptions to Presidential Proclamations (10014 & 10052) Suspending the Entry of Immigrants and Nonimmigrants Presenting a Risk to the United States Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Outbreak
Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants and Nonimmigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak

ICE Says Student Visa Holders May Be Deported, @StateDept Whips Outs a Lipstick, Er … a Welcome Statement

 

 

4/22 Proclamation Suspends Entry of Immigrants For 60 Days; @StateDept Already Suspended Routine Visa Services on 3/18

 

 

State/CA released this on April 23, 2020: Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak

On Wednesday, April 22, President Trump signed a proclamation suspending entry into the United States of certain immigrants who present risk to the U.S. labor market during the economic recovery following the COVID-19 outbreak.  The proclamation is effective at 11:59 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 23 and expires in 60 days, unless continued by the President.  

U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and those holding valid immigrant visas on the effective date of the Proclamation, are not subject to the proclamation.  The Proclamation is not retroactive. No valid visas will be revoked under this Proclamation.  The proclamation provides exceptions to its restrictions for certain categories of immigrants, including: certain healthcare professionals, aliens seeking to enter the United States pursuant to an EB-5 investor visa, spouses and children (categories IR2, CR2, IR3, IH3, IR4, IH4) of U.S. citizens, members of the United States Armed Forces and any spouse and children of a member of the United States Armed Forces, and aliens seeking to enter the United States pursuant to an Afghan and Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa.  Please refer to the proclamation for a full list of exceptions.   Routine visas services have been suspended at U.S. posts worldwide, but as resources allow, embassies and consulates will continue to provide emergency and mission critical visa services for applicants who are not subject to this presidential proclamation. 

The full text of the presidential proclamation is available on the White House website at:  

https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-suspending-entry-immigrants-present-risk-u-s-labor-market-economic-recovery-following-covid-19-outbreak/

See immigrant visa categories here.
Per Sec 2.(b)  of the Proclamation.
The suspension and limitation on entry pursuant to section 1 of this proclamation shall not apply to:

(i)     any lawful permanent resident of the United States;

(ii)    any alien seeking to enter the United States on an immigrant visa as a physician, nurse, or other healthcare professional; to perform medical research or other research intended to combat the spread of COVID-19; or to perform work essential to combating, recovering from, or otherwise alleviating the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their respective designees;  and any spouse and unmarried children under 21 years old of any such alien who are accompanying or following to join the alien;

(iii)   any alien applying for a visa to enter the United States pursuant to the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program;

(iv)    any alien who is the spouse of a United States citizen;

(v)     any alien who is under 21 years old and is the child of a United States citizen, or who is a prospective adoptee seeking to enter the United States pursuant to the IR-4 or IH-4 visa classifications;

(vi)    any alien whose entry would further important United States law enforcement objectives, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their respective designees, based on a recommendation of the Attorney General or his designee;

(vii)   any member of the United States Armed Forces and any spouse and children of a member of the United States Armed Forces;

(viii)  any alien seeking to enter the United States pursuant to a Special Immigrant Visa in the SI or SQ classification, subject to such conditions as the Secretary of State may impose, and any spouse and children of any such individual; or

(ix)    any alien whose entry would be in the national interest, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their respective designees.

Note that the  State Department already suspended routine visa services in most countries on March 18, 2020.

If your routine visa services are still open during this pandemic, please tell us why (Updated)

@StateDept to Continue Processing H-2 Visas, Program “Essential to the economy and food security of the United States”

 

On March 26, the State Department released a statement  regarding its intention to continue processing nonimmigrant, temporary visas under the H-2 visa program “as much as possible” and as “permitted by post resources and local government restrictions” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statement notes that the H-2 program “is essential to the economy and food security of the United States.” The H-2 category allows temporary agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) visas for U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign workers to the United States.  In FY2019, the State Department issued 204,801 H-2A visas for temporary workers performing agricultural services.
Via state.gov:

In response to significant worldwide challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State temporarily suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates as of March 20, 2020. As resources allow, embassies and consulates will continue to provide emergency and mission critical visa services. 

The H-2 program is essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority. Therefore, we intend to continue processing H-2 cases as much as possible, as permitted by post resources and local government restrictions. Secretary Pompeo, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has authorized consular officers to expand the categories of H-2 visa applicants whose applications can be adjudicated without an in-person interview.  Consular officers can, if they so choose, now waive the visa interview requirement for first-time and returning H-2 applicants who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility. This expansion also increases the period in which returning workers may qualify for an interview waiver. Applicants whose previous visas expired in the last 48 months, and who did not require a waiver of ineligibility the last time they applied, do not need to be interviewed in-person if they are applying for the same visa classification as their previous visa.  We anticipate the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview. 

Consular resources and local government restrictions vary widely, and each consular section is continuously reviewing its capacity to adjudicate visa applications during this worldwide pandemic. We encourage applicants to consult with the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate in order to confirm the level of services currently offered. Our overseas missions will resume routine visa services as soon as possible but are unable to provide a specific date at this time.

Original statement posted here.