US still reluctant to let non-Americans enter country from overseas

America Letter: Thousands working under temporary visas unable to travel home

As the summer season steps into gear in the United States, media outlets are awash with advice for Americans hoping to travel overseas.

"Booking a Europe trip this summer? Here are six things to expect," was the headline on a recent article in the Washington Post. A "country-by-country guide" to Europe's reopening was offered by the New York Times.

But for vaccinated Europeans hoping to go stateside, the prospect seems as remote as ever.

The US introduced new restrictions on entry in March 2020 as the scale of the coronavirus emergency became clear. While Donald Trump rescinded the order just before leaving office, Joe Biden issued a fresh presidential proclamation in January.


Under the rules, anyone who has been in the European Schengen area, Ireland and the UK, China, Iran, South Africa or Brazil during the previous 14 days is not permitted to enter the US.

There are some exceptions – diplomats, those travelling for purposes related to containing the virus, certain visa-holders – but, for the most part, travel from any of these regions is forbidden. Esta visas, used by thousands of people each year to enter the US, are in effect on hold for the past 15 months, as are temporary work visas like the J1.

Thousands of people who legally live and work in the US under non-immigrant visas are unable to leave the country as they are not sure if they will be readmitted, though would-be travellers have been eligible to apply for "national interest exceptions" since last autumn. (The several hundred people travelling with Biden to England and Belgium this week were exempt from quarantine requirements.)

Family connections

The restrictions are particularly impacting people with family or work connections abroad. Several online campaigns have taken off outlining the plight of those separated by the travel ban. Hashtag campaigns such as #LoveIsEssential and #FamilyIsNotTourism seek to make the distinction between tourism and the travel needs of people legally living and working in the United States.

Hopes had been high that the US president would make an announcement this weekend during his trip to Europe. The European Commission’s decision last month to allow vaccinated Americans to visit Europe this summer – though each member state can set its own rules – had led to expectations that a reciprocal announcement would be forthcoming.

The EU delegation in Washington, together with ambassadors from individual countries who have been fielding phone calls from increasingly desperate citizens, have been pressing the case in Washington for months.

But a breakthrough to coincide with the G7 now appears highly unlikely. Instead, earlier this week the US agreed to establish a series of "working groups" with the EU, UK and Canada and Mexico (which are subject to separate border restrictions though flights are still allowed). Representatives of a number of government agencies will participate in the groups.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on arrival in the UK that he does not anticipate any further specific announcements before Biden returns to the US next week, saying only that the administration would be guided by public health advice.

Disjointed thinking

For many, the establishment of working groups is too little too late. Airlines and travel industry executives had been pushing for a reopening of sorts in time for the summer season. They fear that a decision on reopening is now much further away.

Privately, many officials believe the working group idea should have been established months ago, and point to disjointed thinking between the state department, National Security Council and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Because the travel ban was implemented through a presidential proclamation, it ultimately falls to the White House, rather than the state department, to make the final decision about changing the rules.

Some sources have expressed hope that a change could happen around July 4th – after a review of the Canadian-Mexican arrangements expected on June 21st. But others are sceptical of a quick decision from the Biden administration which has shown a reluctance to change the rules for non-Americans, even as it allows its own citizens to re-enter the country from jurisdictions on the travel ban list.

A bureaucratic maelstrom may also be on the horizon. Many US embassies across the world have shut their doors, leading to a backlog in visa queries and applications. There are also widespread discrepancies in how individual requests for “national interest exceptions” are handled.

For the moment, however, it appears that the US is not for turning when it comes to controlling its borders, even as Europe moves ahead.