The Biden administration's trans-Atlantic travel ban on European nonimmigrant visa holders "is cruel and has outlived its purpose," writes Célia Belin. Trans-Atlantic travel is not just about tourism; it’s about human lives, which "are stuck in unremitting bureaucratic purgatory" due to visa backlogs in consular offices abroad. This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.
As an expert on trans-Atlantic relations, I watched closely as President Biden took his first official trip overseas to Europe — a visit packed with summits and photo-ops under the sunrays of a beautiful spring. Mending relations with Europe after four years of tensions, Biden gave life to his slogan that “America is back,” engaging allies on a long list of exciting new initiatives.
Yet, to my great disappointment, and that of many other Europeans living in the United States, one much-anticipated announcement never came: the lifting of the trans-Atlantic “travel ban.” We were hopeful because, by and large, Europe has reopened to Americans. European Union member states — whose vaccination rates are in many places just a few weeks behind those of the United States — have agreed to lift the ban on nonessential travel from America (although individual members are free to impose their own restrictions).
Despite high hopes to the contrary, however, America has failed to reciprocate. The United States remains almost entirely sealed off to Europeans, a result of travel restrictions enacted by presidential proclamation in March 2020. (President Donald Trump briefly lifted them as he was leaving office, but Biden reinstated them immediately.) They stipulate that anyone who has been physically present in Britain, Ireland, or 26 other European countries in the past 14 days is forbidden entry to the United States. It means that thousands of families, like mine, remain separated by the Atlantic Ocean, living in the same state of uncertainty as at the beginning of the pandemic crisis.
There are exceptions to the ban. U.S. citizens, green-card holders, their spouses and children, as well as diplomats, are allowed entry to the United States. Other people — including students, journalists, and certain travelers working in areas involving “critical infrastructure” or “significant economic activity” — may qualify for a “National Interest Exception” to the travel ban. Their applications will be considered by American consular offices abroad.
However, this list of exceptions leaves out millions of ordinary travelers, as well as hundreds of thousands of European expatriates who, like me, happen to live temporarily in America. We are non-immigrant visa holders. We live across the country in D.C., California, Michigan, and Georgia. We are researchers, NASA engineers, project managers, and elementary school teachers. We are employees, small-business owners, and start-up chief executives. We have children in school, we pay rent, and we pay taxes. However, we have not been able to visit our home countries in Europe since the onset of the pandemic. Although we are allowed to fly home, we have no guarantee that we will be able to return.
I was last in France in March 2020 to promote my latest book. I hurried back to my children in D.C., worried that imminent travel restrictions would keep us separated. Before leaving France, I kissed my dad goodbye as he lay on a hospital bed after a heart attack, anxious about the care he would get just as the pandemic was starting. (He has since recovered.) I rushed back to my career and home in America, never imagining that 15 months later, I would still be stuck here, subject to a travel ban.
Early in the pandemic, a travel ban was a prudent move — and the case for a ban remained strong for some time. But we are not, in June 2021, in a situation resembling that of a few months ago. Just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revised its guidelines for masking, so the U.S. government should reconsider the safety of letting at least some Europeans enter the country.
Over this long, unsettling period, my children have turned 10 years old and 6 years old — and my parents in France missed their birthdays. A new baby niece was born in Belgium, and I have yet to hold her. My grandpa turned 94, and I have not visited him in his new retirement home. But of course, I am one of the lucky ones. I can only imagine the tragedy of losing a loved one without being able to attend their funeral, the pain of suffering mental or physical ailments without any support network (I’ve been healthy), or the anguish of being long separated from a child or a partner (my French husband is stuck here with me).
Yes, I can fly home. The problem, for non-immigrant visa holders, is that the route back to America — where for many of us our jobs, our houses, and our children’s schools are — is fraught with complications. Those still in possession of a valid visa can try to take what’s become known as the “long route” back to America, which involves making a pit stop for more than 14 days in a third country such as Turkey, North Macedonia, Colombia, or Mexico before returning to the United States. Such detours are costly and can be unsafe. Coronavirus rates are higher in Turkey than in either France or the United States, for example.
For those in need of a new visa, and I am among them, there are additional complications. Going back to Europe means being stranded there until one obtains a visa appointment. Yet wait times for non-immigrant visa appointments at U.S. consulates in European capitals have reached unbelievable lengths: 349 days in Paris, for example. Other cities, including Rome and Berlin, are offering appointments only for “emergency” situations. This is partly because consular officers have been busy processing National Interest Exception requests.
Given such delays, European non-immigrant visa holders are told not to leave the United States “unless they understand that they may not be able to reenter the United States for some time.” The backlogs have effectively created a permanent no-visa policy, a radical interpretation of immigration law for which the State Department is being sued.
As my own non-immigrant visa is set to expire soon, I am faced with a dilemma. We could stay in the United States until the time comes for the visa appointment I was given for renewal — in April 2022. But faced with the prospect of 10 more months of separation, we’ve decided to fly to France to finally reunite with our family, then quarantine for 15 days in a third country outside Europe (as yet undetermined) before rushing back to Washington before the visa expires. I will then apply for an expedited process, hoping that a visa appointment would suddenly open, freeing me and my family from uncertainty. In short, this is a mess.
Although the Biden administration has expressed some empathy for Europeans who want to come to the United States, it has yet to meaningfully address the situation. So far, the only response from the White House has been the creation of “expert working groups,” a measure unlikely to produce results in the short-term.
With an eye on coronavirus variants, the Biden administration may decide to hold off on a full reopening to Europe for a few more weeks, or months. But this blanket travel ban on non-immigrant visa holders is cruel and has outlived its purpose. Allowing us to travel would not significantly raise the public health risk in the United States. Sixteen months into the crisis, being unable to go back home has become unbearable to me and to many other Europeans. Travel is not just about tourism. It’s about human lives, which for now, are stuck in unremitting bureaucratic purgatory.