US unable to issue visas to travellers due to computer glitch

The control tower of John F. Kennedy airport in New York, on May 25. A computer glitch has caused the United States to be unable to make visas to worldwide visitors for two weeks.
The control tower of John F. Kennedy airport in New York, on May 25. A computer glitch has caused the United States to be unable to make visas to worldwide visitors for two weeks. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) - A computer glitch has caused the United States to be unable to make visas to worldwide visitors for two weeks, the State Department said on Monday.

The problem is a hardware issue linked to biometric data that has halted security checks from June 9. It prevented officials from processing and transmitting fingerprints and photographs for security checks, reported the New York Times (NYT).

Visa applications, at an average of 50,000 a day, are piling up as the authorities try to fix the problem.

"We are working around the clock to fix it," Mr John Kirby, a department spokesman, said Monday, as quoted by the NYT. "More than 100 computer experts from both the private and public sectors across the United States are working on this."

He said the visa system was not expected to come back online before next week. Officials added that there was no indication of a malicious attack.

Ms Ashley Garrigus, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the backup system had also failed, the NYT reported.

"While switching to the backup system, we discovered that the data was damaged and unusable," she wrote in an e-mail quoted by the NYR. "We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers and recognize the hardship to those waiting for visas, and in some cases, their family members or employers in the United States."

People traveling for work, vacations and family visits were all among the affected. The Nigerian musician King Sunny Adé was forced to cancel a U.S. tour, said Par Neiburger, artistic director of the World Music Institute, who was organizing his New York concert.

The State Department is also providing documents to help about 250 farm workers stranded outside the US.

The so-called travel letters allow workers to reach their places of employment, though customs officials still have to accept the documents as valid, according to Ms Garrigus.

"There is no guarantee that a port of entry waiver will be granted," Ms Garrigus said in an e-mail, adding that the State and Homeland Security departments arrived at the solution over the weekend.

More than 3,000 farm workers seeking temporary H-2A immigrant visas have been stranded outside the U.S. by a Producers in California, the biggest farm state, had been losing US$500,000 to US$1 million a day as harvests slowed for crops from berries and melons to cherries, according to the Western Growers Association based in Irvine, California.

The H-2A guest-worker program lets agricultural laborers into the U.S. on a temporary basis to help harvest crops. About 1.2 million such workers are in the U.S., more than half of them illegally, according to Labor Department estimates.

Efforts to expand legal agricultural immigration have stalled in Congress as Republicans and Democrats argue over border security, potential citizenship for undocumented workers and other issues.

The State Department glitch has also affected business and tourist travel.