State Department losing $1.4B in visa and passport fees amid COVID-19

State Department losing $1.4B in visa and passport fees amid COVID-19
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The State Department is expecting a loss of $1.4 billion in 2020 as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, officials said Tuesday, raising alarm that those funds, which support consular services abroad, are drying up.

That loss is expected to continue into 2021, said Ian Brownlee, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, and isn’t expected to rebound for years.

The decline is reflective not only of the pandemic, but also of a drop in visa applications that have been taking place over a number of years, the assistant secretary said.

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Brownlee was speaking at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee about the administration’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal.

Fees collected from visa and passport applicants amount to nearly $3.5 billion in revenue for the State Department annually, Brownlee said, but that number is expected to be halved due to the reduced services and number of applicants amid the pandemic.

“The pandemic has severely disrupted consular fee revenue,” he told the committee in opening remarks. “Relative to FY2019, we expect to drop more than $1.4 billion this year, and a comparable loss in the next fiscal year.”

In March, the State Department announced it would temporarily suspend routine visa and passport processing in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

Brownlee says the revenue collected by the visa and passport fees goes towards providing essential services to American citizens abroad and has helped fund the Department’s repatriation efforts.

The agency has begun a phased restarting of visa services, it announced last week, with such services becoming available on a case by case basis, determined by how each country is handling the coronavirus pandemic.

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Lawmakers on Tuesday, while praising the agency for being responsive and cooperative in keeping Congress abreast of repatriation efforts, also raised concern if the agency was moving too slowly in re-opening consular services.

Rep. Tom Malinwoski (D-N.J.), cited examples of Americans and their family members separated for over three and a half months amid the confusion over the unavailability of consular services.

“Why is it that at this point, especially with the resources we’ve given you, we cannot conduct expedited interviews in these relatively few cases where there’s an American family that is broken up?” he asked.

Brownlee cited how the agency had expedited visa interviews for medical professionals coming to the U.S. to help address the pandemic and some visa services were taking place for agricultural workers coming from Mexico.

But in countries where the situation related to the pandemic was always changing, the State Department is challenged in its ability to move forward on fully resuming consular operations, he said.

“We’re looking at everything we can do to get visa operations moving as quickly as possible.”

Brownlee also addressed the issue of visa applicants who paid for appointments that were canceled and have documents that are expiring and that the State Department is working to find a solution.

“We’re formulating guidance to the field right now on how to deal with these various issues, we are very cognizant of the fairness issue, that people paid in good faith for certain services and did not receive them,” he said.

Lawmakers also asked about the cost of repatriation flights, which Brownlee said the agency spent over $196 million in its efforts, bringing over 110,000 Americans home following unprecedented border closures beginning in March as countries sought to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

American citizens taking repatriation flights are required by law to repay the cost of the flight and the State Department provided up to $8 million in loans to citizens who could not afford the cost of the flight. Those are also expected to be paid back.