State Department Immigration Updates | Q&A with BAL’s Tiffany Derentz
Tiffany Derentz is a senior counsel at BAL’s Washington, D.C., office, and member of the firm’s Government Strategies team. She serves on the board of the Immigration Law Section of the Federal Bar Association and is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Prior to joining BAL, Tiffany served as Deputy Chief of the Legal Advisory Opinions Division within the Visa Office, placing her at the forefront of legal issues impacting all facets of consular operations at U.S. embassies and consulates. She also served as a senior adviser to the Department of State’s Chief Legal Adviser for immigration affairs. In addition to her experience in D.C., Tiffany served as a consular officer at multiple posts overseas, including in the Middle East and Russia. She has direct in-person experience working with consular sections worldwide, the National Visa Center and the Kentucky Consular Center. We recently spoke with her about her work and her take on visa processing and other State Department hot topics.
What are you seeing on delays at consulates abroad?
Consular processing has significantly improved, although if you look at wait times for tourists and business visitors, they are still very long. Take, for example, India: We’ve seen B wait times improve by about 300 days, but they are still around 350 days or more.
Progress has been made in other ways: The State Department expects to fully staff embassies and consulates this year, and they actually processed more visas last year than they had in any year since 2019. The government recently improved administrative processing and gained some other efficiencies. For example, it used to be if you had a case in New Delhi, it would be adjudicated by an officer in New Delhi. Now you can apply in New Delhi and have a consular officer in Frankfurt or the United States adjudicate the application. This flexibility allows the State Department to process more cases for Indian nationals, which is a huge help in reducing backlogs.
On administrative processing, when you said they have made improvements, are we just seeing less of it, or have they changed criteria for a case to be flagged for administrative processing? If so, how did that change?
Administrative processing is a term the government uses to mean some other action needs to be taken on a case — either the applicant needs to provide something, the consular officer needs to do something, such as get a legal opinion, or additional security vetting needs to be done. For cases that take longer, what you see as a “problem” or delay typically is security vetting.
However, now there’s a National Vetting Center these cases are routed through that is supposed to decrease the number of people being flagged for administrative processing, and the vetting itself is taking much less time. Some cases will continue to take longer, but for those who appear for their interview or whose paperwork was submitted through interview waiver from November forward, most of those cases should take about two weeks compared to several months — and, in some cases, over a year — that we saw during COVID.
You mentioned the example of an application being filed in New Delhi and getting processed in Frankfurt. What about just third-country processing in general? Is it more widely available now?
Prior to COVID, applicants were encouraged to apply for a visa in their home country or country of residence. This helped to reduce “forum shopping,” i.e., applicants trying to find a favorable post. There are also benefits to applying in the home country or country of residence. Consular officers learn the applicant pool and other local customs or conditions, such as what a normal salary is in the local currency and area as well as other factors that can impact visa adjudications.
Then COVID hit, and the government shut down for a few months. When offices reopened, they had a backlog and limited number of officers in key places to adjudicate cases. As visas cannot be adjudicated remotely by officers, COVID limited the number of people who could be in embassies and consulates, as well as in offices in U.S. government agencies that may have a role in the visa process. People had to apply where they were a national or resident because consulates didn’t have the bandwidth to take on extra cases.
More recently, the Visa Office advised consular officers to accept third-country nationals and, in some cases, have opened up appointment availability for certain applicants. For example, Indian nationals can apply in Frankfurt and Bangkok, where appointments have been set aside for them. Not all posts are able to accept third-country nationals though, so it is important to check the embassy’s or consulate’s website.
You are not only part of BAL’s Government Strategies team but also a lead attorney for the firm’s new Sports & Entertainment practice. Are you seeing visa delays for athletes and entertainers too?
Yes! Athletes and entertainers are being delayed. For example, there was a big track and field event last summer in Oregon, the World Athletics Championships, which garnered media attention about athletes getting visas just hours before their races and flying to the United States. We’ve seen delays with both large and small sporting events. Over the next decade, that is going to be a particularly challenging issue because there are several major sporting events in the United States, including the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2028 and the World Cup in 2026, that will require a very clear and efficient visa process for athletes, coaches and support staff, as well as the fans. You can’t have sporting events without fans. Some of these people will be coming from countries that don’t have visa waiver as an option. In the past, that might have required additional screening, and the government will need to be able to process those in a timely manner to ensure the success of these events.
On the entertainment front, a number of bands have had to cancel concerts due to visa issues.
One of the big topics now is the domestic visa renewal pilot project. What do we know about it so far, and how could it improve processing here and abroad?
We don’t know much right now, as the State Department is still trying to decide who is eligible and work through how the pilot will run overall. The pilot is likely to include a small population of Hs or Ls, as they need to be able to test adjudication domestically before they launch a renewal program. They are going to have to collect fees and passports, and have staff to process these cases.
Domestic visa renewal has not been used, except in very limited circumstances for diplomatic and official visas, since 2004 because immigration laws were changed after 9/11. However, a State Department regulation has stayed in place that allows for domestic visa renewal for certain work visa categories — Es, Hs, Is, Ls, Os and Ps. It hasn’t been used in almost 20 years though, so the State Department has to set up an entire office and a new process in order to renew visas domestically. Once a domestic renewal program is launched, it will allow individuals in the United States to reapply for a visa domestically instead of being forced to go abroad. This will also open up more capacity at U.S. embassies and consulates, keeping appointments open to those who need it.
How or why did you choose to practice immigration law?
Before I graduated from law school, I was accepted to a fellowship program with the government called the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program. As a PMF, certain government jobs are open to you. I was able to secure a position in the Visa Office. To be honest, I wasn’t looking to get into immigration, but I needed a job before I graduated and the job market was pretty tough. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into or what government work was like. My first year in the program, I spent five months at the embassy in Moscow and was involved in planning the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. My experience in Moscow was a very big, pivotal time for me, both personally and professionally. It was the first of many incredibly unique experiences that only the U.S. government can offer. I’ve been in immigration ever since.
What does it mean to you to be part of BAL’s Government Strategies team in D.C.?
I appreciate being a member of the Government Strategies team because I get to work with incredible people and I can utilize my State Department background in a way that I feel is meaningful.
Our Government Strategies team is truly unique. Combined, we have decades of experience in the U.S. government, and more specifically, in the agencies that handle immigration. We’ve been on the inside, so we know how the government works, who the key players are, and have extensive knowledge in immigration. We help our clients navigate complex legal issues and processes, and ensure they understand how changes may impact their immigration programs. Being able to share my experience at the State Department with others in a way that helps our firm and our clients is fulfilling in so many ways.