On May 19, the 27 Member States of the European Union agreed to reopen their borders to visitors fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at the end of the month. Countries will retain the ability to request additional testing or quarantine, or to reverse restrictions in an emergency. Americans can finally travel to Europe for the first time in 14 months. But planes will only fly in one direction. Europeans still do not have the right to come to the United States.
Despite the precedents reports of a possible reopening of the United States by mid-May, the Biden administration has yet to give any indication that it intends to reciprocate. In fact, the conditions for granting an exceptional travel authorization to the United States seem to have tightened up for Europeans in recent months. Yet many still look forward to the opportunity to travel, a fundamental freedom too often confused with tourism.
In particular, tens of thousands of European nonimmigrant visa holders in the United States – whether they are investors, temporary workers, or other types of exchange visitors – are still being told that they are ‘they cannot return to their country of origin – because, if they leave, they may not be allowed to return to their temporary home in the United States. I am one of them. For us, purgatory has lasted too long. Regular visa processing must resume to relieve long-separated people, while considering avenues for a gradual and complete reopening to Europe.
At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, a transatlantic travel ban appeared inevitable and timely. On March 11, 2020, President Donald Trump announced that he would be to suspend entry to all non-US citizens who were “physically present in the Schengen area during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States”. A similar decision was soon published regarding UK and Ireland. Following this example, on March 16, the European Commission guest Member States to restrict non-essential travel, which they did A little after. As a worldwide skirmish took place, millions have been repatriated back and forth across the Atlantic, many carrying the virus with them.
Considering the huge sacrifices required from all walks of life to limit the spread of the virus, travel seemed almost futile. Over the months, few have advocated lifting the travel ban – even as internal mobility, both in the US and the EU, has started to pick up.
As the United States faces new waves of COVID-19 and the specter of dangerous variants, Washington extended its travel ban to Brazil (May 2020), South Africa (January 2021) and India (April 2021). Meanwhile, the effective travel ban on Europe (Schengen, UK and Ireland) is the oldest in the US, just short of those affecting China and Iran. The human consequences are all too real. Over time, personal separation tragedies have surfaced on social media under hashtags such as #LoveIsEssential, #FamilyIsNotTourism, or #LiftTheTravelBan. People spoke of the pain of being separated from family, friends, engaged couples, adult children, the places they love, the services they need. Some explain that travel is a prerequisite for their livelihood and that restrictions force them to choose between career and family. Others describe a feeling of isolation in their host country as well as homesickness.
Exceptions for some, limbo for others
As the change of administration brought hope, it soon became clear that Biden’s team would prioritize controlling the pandemic above all else. Although Trump finished the travel ban just before leaving the office, it was restored shortly thereafter by President Joe Biden, citing public health imperatives. To this day, the “14-day policy”, prohibiting entry to visitors who have stayed in the Schengen area within two weeks of their departure date, remains in force. To get around the policy, one can ask for a “national interest exception” (NIE), a holy grail granted by consular offices abroad and increasingly difficult to obtain.
The new administration has clarified the NIE process, while toughening it up. State Department updates in April and May potential beneficiaries of NIEs identified – immigrants, people with fiancé (e) visas, students, journalists, workers of “some critical infrastructure sectors, “As well as academics (” some J visas “), and”some exchange visitors. “
Regardless of the length of the list, many legal visa holders remain excluded – including investors, temporary workers, and many exchange visitors (E, H, L, O, P and other J visas). For most of them, traveling across the Atlantic is risky. If they choose to visit Europe, for personal or professional reasons, they could be denied an NIE to return to the United States, thus playing their livelihood.
In addition, most US consulates in Europe work at reduced capacity, delaying appointments by months and jeopardizing visa renewals and other procedures. The United States Embassy in Paris offers a blunt but honest assessment of the situation: “Many applicants, who were previously able to qualify for a national interest exception, may not be able to meet the new standards … France, unless ‘She does not understand that she may not be able to return to the United States for a while. As immigration attorneys explain to their frantic clients navigating an opaque system, it’s best to stay put.
Asymmetry and detours
While the travel restrictions imposed by European countries on Americans have been equally severe, an important asymmetry lies in the status of nonimmigrant visa holders. US holders of these visas (such as residence cards in France) are considered “residents” in most European countries, which allows them to travel back and forth between their country of origin (the United States) and their temporary home (in Europe). European nonimmigrant visa holders living in the United States, conversely, are considered “non-residents” even though they may have stable jobs, assets, or children in school. If these “non-residents” visit Europe, they may be denied the right to return to America.
This long-standing policy now creates an unfair situation between those who are subject to the ban (non-immigrant visa holders and tourists) and those who are exempt (green card holders, flight crew members, etc. diplomats and exceptions under NIE status). This disparity is not only cruel; it does not in fact prevent the virus from circulating. Indeed, as the situation persists, it only pushes some to take long, costly and risky detours. Europeans stranded by the 14-day policy end up spending two weeks in a non-Schengen third country – like Croatia, Turkey, Morocco, Costa Rica, Colombia or North Macedonia – on their way to the United States , increasing their risk of infection in the process. In other words, if they can afford it.
This detour option is not available for those waiting for their visa application to be processed. According to the State Department The figures, the number of nonimmigrant visas issued to the Schengen area and to British citizens in 2020 fell to a third of what it was in 2019, when it reached more than half a million. There are several reasons for this decline: fears of a pandemic, but also travel restrictions and the suspension of routine visa services. Behind these numbers are tens of thousands of people waiting to restart their lives.
Welcoming long-time visitors
In the long run, the situation calls into question the premise of the travel ban itself. Several methods for safe travel are currently being tested by European countries preparing to reopen after the May 19 decision. France will open to vaccinated people, probably by putting in place a special “sanitary pass”. Italy will welcome American travelers without quarantine if they arrive in the country on special flights tested by Delta COVID.
The United States is also looking for creative solutions to resume international travel. On May 18, representatives of the tourism industry bear witness before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transport, the subcommittee on tourism, trade and export promotion called for the adoption of new security protocols and official benchmarks to speed up reopening to foreign tourists . While the general rules for mass tourism are being worked out, much remains to be done to relax the rules applicable to those who travel to live and contribute in America. European nonimmigrant visa holders need to be able to travel back and forth, as other legal permanent residents and U.S. visa holders living in Europe can, in order to regain some level of normalcy. Routine visa processing must resume as soon as possible to avoid the inevitable new backlog that the summer will bring. Limbo has gone on long enough.
Vaccination figures should appease the holdouts: to date 34.1% of the population in the EU and 48.2% in the US have received at least one dose COVID-19 vaccine, and deployment is accelerating in Europe. Ahead of President Biden’s participation in the EU-US and NATO summits in Brussels in mid-June, the administration must urgently consider the impact created by such a long travel ban between the US and their closest allies. If the United States really wants underline its “commitment to a strong transatlantic partnership based on shared interests and values”, a tangible demonstration of confidence before the summit would be welcome.