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US waives in-person interviews for range of visas, including H-1B, for 2022: State Department

WASHINGTON, Dec 24: Amid growing concerns of surging COVID-19 cases, the US has announced that it will waive the in-person interview requirement for a range of visa applicants during the entire year in 2022, including for H-1B workers and students, many of whom are from India.

The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise.

Technology companies depend on it to hire tens of thousands of employees each year from countries like India and China.

The Department of State on Thursday announced that consular officers are now temporarily authorized, through December 31, 2022, to waive in-person interviews for certain individual petition-based nonimmigrant work visas and their qualifying derivatives in the following categories: Persons in Specialty Occupations (H-1B visas), Trainee or Special Education Visitors (H-3 visas), Intracompany Transferees (L visas), Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement (O visas), Athletes, Artists, and Entertainers (P visas), and Participants in International Cultural Exchange Programmes (Q visas).

Additionally, the Secretary of State has extended consular officers' current ability to waive the in-person interview, through December 31, 2022, for the following other categories of nonimmigrant visas: Temporary Agricultural and Non-agricultural Workers (H-2 visas), Students (F and M visas), and Student Exchange Visitors (Academic J visas), the press release said.

Embassies and consulates may still require an in-person interview on a case-by-case basis and dependent upon local conditions. Applicants should check embassy and consulate websites for more detailed information about this development, as well as current operating status and services, it said.

The state department said, "it recognises the many contributions of international visitors to our communities and campuses and the positive impact of temporary work visa holders on the US economy and is committed to facilitating nonimmigrant travel and reducing visa wait times."

The State Department also said it has extended indefinitely the authority to waive the in-person interview for applicants renewing a visa in the same visa class within 48 months of the prior visa's expiration.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in profound reductions in the Department's visa processing capacity. As global travel rebounds, the US is taking these temporary steps to further commitment to safely and efficiently reduce visa wait times while maintaining national security as our priority, it added.

The coronavirus pandemic had prompted the US to close its borders to international travelers from many countries, including India, last year. Later, only passengers holding visas belonging to certain categories were permitted to travel.

From November 8, the US lifted all restrictions for fully vaccinated international travelers, including from India, but they will have to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight to the country.

The new authorization also applies to temporary workers applying for H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q visas who meet certain conditions, including that they are applying for a visa in their country of nationality or residence, the press release said.

Under this authority, consular officers have discretion to waive the visa interview requirement for individual petition-based H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q applicants who were previously issued any type of visa, and who have never been refused a visa unless such refusal was overcome or waived, and who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility; or first-time individual petition-based H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q who are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), provided they have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility and have previously traveled to the United States using an authorization obtained via the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA).

The US is witnessing an astronomical surge in the Omicron variant, with infections jumping to 73 percent of all Covid cases in the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in omicron's share of infections in only one week.

Scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about Omicron less than a month ago and on November 26 the WHO designated it as a "variant of concern.'' The mutant has since shown up in about 90 countries, including in India.

Much about the Omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness.

The total number of coronavirus cases in the US stands at 51,814,812 and 815,423 people have died due to the virus, according to the latest data by Johns Hopkins University.

Over 70 Dead As Tornadoes Flatten Entire Blocks In 5 US States

NEW YORK, Dec 11: Tornadoes ripped through five US states overnight, leaving more than 70 people dead Saturday in Kentucky and causing multiple fatalities at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois that suffered "catastrophic damage" with around 100 people trapped inside.

The western Kentucky town of Mayfield was "ground zero" of the storm -- a scene of "massive devastation," one official said.

Entire city blocks there were flattened, with houses and buildings ripped apart, and twisted metal, shattered tree limbs and bricks scattered across streets, according to pictures and videos shared on social media.'

"We were pretty sure that we would lose over 50 Kentuckians. I'm now certain that that number is north of 70. It may in fact end up exceeding 100 before the day is done," Governor Andy Beshear told a midday press conference in Mayfield.

The roof of a candle factory collapsed in Mayfield, resulting in "mass casualties" there, Beshear said earlier.

At least one person died when a tornado "pretty much destroyed" a nursing home in the Arkansas town of Monette, a county official said. Another person died elsewhere in the state, local media reported.

Towns in Missouri and Tennessee were affected as well by some of the most powerful tornadoes to hammer the area in years.

President Joe Biden tweeted that the massive storms had inflicted an "unimaginable tragedy" on the area and vowed to provide all needed federal aid.

Lori Wooton was at her daughter's home in the Kentucky town of Dawson Springs -- about 70 miles northwest of Mayfield -- when, she said, the storm came on with stunning swiftness.

"At first, you know, we were just hearing the rain," she told CNN, "and all of a sudden, it was just very loud like a train.

"It didn't seem like it lasted that long... three or four seconds and it was gone. But then when we got out and started looking at the damage, it was just unbelievable."

One tornado, which first touched down in Missouri, smashed along the ground for over 200 miles in Kentucky, Governor Beshear said.

The longest a US tornado has ever tracked along the ground was a 219-mile storm in Missouri in 1925. Powerful and devastating -- as such long-track storms tend to be -- it claimed 695 lives.

Images of the latest tornadoes from US news channels showed dark black cylinders sweeping across the ground, illuminated by intermittent flashes of lightning.

At least four Kentucky counties were left devastated.

"Mayfield in Graves County will be ground zero," Kentucky emergency management director Michael Dossett told CNN early Saturday. "The city took... the hardest hit. There is massive devastation," he said.

The governor declared a state of emergency before midnight and said scores of search and rescue officials had been deployed.

Around 200,000 homes in Kentucky and Tennessee were left without power, according to PowerOutage.com.

On the same night a storm ripped through a massive Amazon warehouse in the state of Illinois where around 100 workers were trapped inside, local media reported.

Hundreds of officials were working through the early hours of Saturday to rescue employees at the warehouse -- a third of which was reduced to rubble -- who were on the night shift processing orders ahead of the Christmas holidays.

Footage shared across US news channels and social media of the Amazon warehouse showed a large part of the facility's roof ripped off, while one of the walls had collapsed into the building.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said police and state emergency agencies were "coordinating closely with local officials and I will continue to monitor the situation."

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said "the safety and well-being of our employees and partners is our top priority right now. We're assessing the situation and will share additional information when it's available."

In Arkansas, some 20 people were trapped after a tornado struck the Monette Manor nursing home, US media reported.

Craighead county official Marvin Day told local news channels that rescuers had successfully pulled out those trapped in the building and the structure was "pretty much destroyed."

Scientists have warned that climate change is making storms more powerful and increasing their frequency, posing a growing threat to areas where extreme weather events are already common.

Biden ends summit with call to ‘safeguard’ guardrails of democracy

WASHINGTON, Dec 11: US President Joe Biden closed the Summit for Democracy on Friday reminding world leaders, who participated, of their responsibility to “strengthen the guardrails of democracy” to make it more resilient against the “buffeting forces of autocracies” and he vowed to do his own part in America by enacting laws advancing voting rights.

The two-day virtual summit was attended by leaders of 89 countries - of the 100 who were invited - and the European Union. Biden announced in his closing remarks that he plans to host a second edition of it next year and indicated it would be an in-person gathering.

Joe Biden closed the summit saying, “As the leaders of governments, we - we have a responsibility to listen to our citizens, to strengthen the guardrails of democracy, and to drive reforms that are going to make transparent, accountable governments - governance more resilient against the buffering and - the buffeting forces of autocracy and those who want - and the naked pursuit of power ahead of the public good.”

This first summit of its kind was attended among others by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, France’s Emmanuel Macron, UK’s Boris Johnson, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Australia’s Scott Morrison. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan were not invited and Pakistan’s Imran Khan turned down the invitation.

“Over the last two days, we’ve heard government leaders, as well as democratic reformers from every region of the world, talk about the challenges that democracy is facing and the opportunities for its renewal,” Biden said, summarising the remarks and comments at the conference.

“We’ve shone a spotlight on the importance of protecting media freedom and how advancing the status of women and girls is an investment in the success for our democracies,” the US president added.

“And we’ve focused on the need to empower human rights defenders and make sure … technology … is used to advance democracies to lift people up, not to hold them down.”

The last point was an unmistakable reference to Beijing’s use of technology - the persecution of China’s minority Uighur Muslims - is what has been described by the United States and other countries as genocide. The country’s communist party rulers have also used technology to suppress dissent.

President Joe Biden went on to say that though challenges to democracy may vary from country to country “the threat we face and the solutions we seek have a common antecedent”. Autocracies, essentially.

In the US, the most serious threat to democracy in recent history came from a horde of insurrectionists incited by former President Donald Trump who invaded the US Capitol, home to the country’s parliament, to prevent a joint sitting of its two chambers from certifying Biden’s election as president.

Biden addressed the domestic threats to democracy in the US as a voting rights issue and promised to “make real the full promise of America, including by enacting both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act”. The two legislations seek, above all, to make voting easy and non-discriminatory.

“Here at home, that means working to make real the full promise of America, including by enacting both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” he said.

Democratic spirit ingrained in Indians, says Modi at Biden’s democracy summit

WASHINGTON, Dec 10: Participating in the ‘Summit for Democracy’ hosted by US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday said the democratic spirit, including respect for rule of law and pluralistic ethos, is "ingrained in Indians".

Modi was one of 12 leaders who were invited to participate in the main Leaders’ Plenary Session hosted virtually by US President Biden on Day 1 of the ‘Summit for Democracy’ on Thursday. The closed-door session saw interventions from 12 select countries, including India.

Modi recalled the date when India’s Constituent Assembly held its first session 75 years ago. “He highlighted India’s civilisational ethos as one of the original sources of democracy,” sources told India Today.

“PM Modi said that the democratic spirit, including respect for rule of law and pluralistic ethos, is ingrained in Indians. The Indian Diaspora carries it too, thereby contributing to economic well-being and social harmony of their adopted homes,” sources said.

Modi, according to sources, emphasised the need for democratic countries to deliver on values enshrined in their constitutions. He also outlined sensitivity, accountability, participation and reform orientation as four pillars of Indian democratic governance.

“He stressed that principles of democracy should also guide global governance; and that given technology’s ability to impact democracy positively or negatively, technology companies should contribute to preserving open and democratic societies,” said sources.

In the opening remarks, Joe Biden said, “Democracy — government of the people, by the people, for the people — can at times be fragile, but it also is inherently resilient. It’s capable of self-correction and it’s capable of self-improvement. And, yes, democracy is hard. We all know that. It works best with consensus and cooperation. When people and parties that might have opposing views sit down and find ways to work together, things begin to work.”

On Day 1, the first plenary session was hosted by President Biden and the second Leaders’ Plenary Session was hosted by President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

The US President announced that Washington DC was planning to commit as much as $224 million [$424 million] in the next year to shore up “transparent and accountable governance, including supporting media freedom, fighting international corruption, standing with democratic reformers, promoting technology that advances democracy, and defining and defending what a fair election is".

US Nov inflation at near 40-year high, increasing pressure on Fed to tighten policy

WASHINGTON, Dec 10: US consumer prices rose last month at the fastest annual pace in nearly 40 years, magnifying how rapid and persistent inflation is eroding paychecks and increasing pressure on the Federal Reserve to tighten policy.

The consumer price index increased 6.8% from November 2020, according to Labor Department data released Friday. The widely followed inflation gauge rose 0.8% from October, exceeding forecasts and extending a trend of sizable increases that began earlier this year.

The median forecasts in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 6.8% annual gain and a 0.7% advance in the monthly measure. The yield on 10-year Treasuries slid while S&P 500 index futures gained and the dollar fell.

The increase in the CPI reflected broad advances in most categories. Gasoline, shelter, food and vehicles were among the larger contributors to the month-over-month increase.

The data reinforce expectations the Fed will accelerate the wind down of its bond-buying program at the central bank’s final meeting of the year next week. Central banks -- and politicians -- around the world have come under increasing pressure to address rising inflation as workers spend more at the grocery store and the gas pump.

A faster tapering would open the door for the Fed to begin increasing interest rates, a move markets now expect by the middle of next year. Annual CPI increases are anticipated to hover near 7% into 2022.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, so-called core prices rose 0.5% from the prior month. The core CPI was up 4.9% from a year earlier, a fresh 30-year high.

Shelter costs -- which are considered to be a more structural component of the CPI and make up about a third of the overall index -- rose 0.5% in November from a month earlier.

Over 100 Nations In Biden's 'Democracy' Summit; Russia, China See Red

WASHINGTON, Dec 9: President Joe Biden, who took office amid the biggest US political crisis in decades, hosts representatives of more than 100 countries for a democracy summit Thursday that is drawing fire from China and Russia.

The event, held by video link because of the coronavirus pandemic, is billed by the White House as US leadership in an existential struggle between democracies and powerful autocracies or dictatorships.

"Make no mistake, we're at a moment of democratic reckoning," said Uzra Zeya, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

"It's no secret that democracies around the world are facing increasing challenges from new and novel threats. Countries in virtually every region of the world have experienced degrees of democratic backsliding."

The summit, running Thursday and Friday, will feature opening remarks from Biden at the White House and is set to gather representatives from some 100 governments, as well as NGOs, private businesses, philanthropical organizations and legislatures.

But the fact that Biden continues to face a shocking challenge to US democratic norms from Donald Trump and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election provides a troubling backdrop for the summit.

And even before summit attendees could meet, tensions erupted simply over who should be on -- and off -- the list.

China and Russia, which Biden sees as champions of the autocracies camp, were pointedly left out, something they say is stoking an ideological "rift."

"No country has the right to judge the world's vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick," wrote ambassadors Anatoly Antonov of Russia and Qin Gang of China in a joint essay last month.

Further prickling Chinese sensibilities, the Biden administration has invited Taiwan -- the democratically ruled island that mainland China considers part of its territory, albeit not yet under its control.

On Monday, the Biden administration also announced it would not send US government officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February in protest at human rights abuses, including "genocide" against the Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang.

Australia, Britain and Canada have joined the diplomatic boycott, although the countries' athletes will still compete. Again, Russia joined China in criticizing the decision.

Deciding when other countries should be excluded from the summit for human rights abuses or vote rigging hasn't been any less fraught.

For example, Pakistan and the Philippines are in, while EU member Hungary's nationalist government is out. Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is invited, while the leader of NATO member Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been shunned.

Biden, Putin hold key summit on Ukraine

WASHINGTON, Dec 8: US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held two hours of virtual talks on Ukraine and other disputes on Tuesday, Russian state TV reported, amid Western fears that Moscow is poised to invade its southern neighbour.

Russian TV footage showed Biden and Putin greeting each other in a friendly manner at the start of what was expected to be a tense exchange. Biden told Putin he hoped their next meeting would be in person.

The Kremlin has said it hopes the two leaders can hold an in-person summit to discuss what it has described as the lamentable state of US-Russia relations, which have sunk to their lowest since the end of the Cold War.

US officials said before the video conference that Biden would tell Putin that Russia and its banks could be hit with the toughest economic sanctions yet if it attacks Ukraine.

They said the sanctions, which one source said could target Russia’s biggest banks and Moscow’s ability to convert roubles into dollars and other currencies, were designed to dissuade Putin from using tens of thousands of troops massed near the Ukrainian border to attack its southern neighbour.

The Kremlin, which said before Tuesday’s meeting it did not expect any breakthroughs, has denied harbouring any intention to attack Ukraine and has said its troop posture is defensive.

But Moscow has voiced rising vexation over Western military aid to Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic that has tilted towards the West since a popular revolt toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014, and what it calls creeping Nato expansion.

Moscow has likewise questioned Ukrainian intentions and said it wants guarantees that Kiev will not use force to try to retake territory lost in 2014 to Russia-backed separatists, a scenario Ukraine has ruled out.

“We’re looking for good, predictable relations with the US. Russia has never intended to attack anyone, but we have our concerns and we have our red lines,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

The United States has shared intelligence about Russian military movements along the border with allies, a senior Biden administration official confirmed to reporters while previewing the call.

The official did not go into details but said “we have seen the movement of additional capabilities and forces to the vicinity of Ukraine in multiple different areas. And these movements are consistent with the planning that we see underway for a military escalation in Ukraine”.

The United States and allies have discussed crippling financial sanctions as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We have had intensive discussions with our European partners about what we would do collectively in the event of a major Russian military escalation in Ukraine. And we believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both the Europeans and the US that would impose significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy, should they choose to proceed”.

Asked if the US could consider deploying troops to defend Ukraine, the official refused to discuss “the particular sensitive challenges” that Biden will lay out for Putin but said, “the US not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force, as opposed to a combination of support for the Ukrainian military, strong economic countermeasures, and the substantial increase in support and capability to our Nato allies to ensure that they remain safe”.

US announces diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

WASHINGTON, Dec 7: The Biden administration announced on Monday that US officials will not attend the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing after China pledged unspecified “countermeasures” against any such diplomatic boycott.

Those calling for a boycott are “grandstanding” and should stop “so as not to affect the dialogue and cooperation between China and the United States in important areas,” Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, earlier said.

“If the US insists in wilfully clinging to its course, China will take resolute countermeasures,” he said at a news conference.

US President Joe Biden said last month that he was considering such a diplomatic boycott to protest China’s human rights record, including what Washington says is genocide against minority Muslims.

The US boycott would not prevent its athletes from competing in the games. The US is next due to host an Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles, raising the question of how China might respond in the interim. Beijing says it opposes the politicisation of sports, but it has punished American sports leagues in the past, including the National Basketball Association, for running afoul of its political red lines.

'Omicron' Not More Severe Than Delta Variant Of Covid: Top US Scientist

WASHINGTON, Dec 7: Top US scientist Anthony Fauci said Tuesday that while it would take weeks to judge the severity of the new Covid-19 variant 'Omicron', early indications suggested it was not worse than prior strains, and possibly milder.

President Joe Biden's chief medical advisor broke down the knowns and unknowns about Omicron into three major areas: transmissibility, how well it evades immunity from prior infection and vaccines, and severity of illness.

The new variant is "clearly highly transmissible," very likely more so than Delta, the current dominant global strain, Fauci said.

Accumulating epidemiological data from around the world also indicates re-infections are higher with Omicron.

Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said lab experiments that tested the potency of antibodies from current vaccines against Omicron should come in the "next few days to a week."

On the question of severity, "it almost certainly is not more severe than Delta," said Fauci.

"There is some suggestion that it might even be less severe, because when you look at some of the cohorts that are being followed in South Africa, the ratio between the number of infections and the number of hospitalizations seems to be less than with Delta."

But he added it was important to not over-interpret this data because the populations being followed skewed young, and were less likely to become hospitalized.

"I think that's going to take another couple of weeks at least in South Africa," where the variant was first reported in November, he said.

"As we get more infections throughout the rest of the world, it might take longer to see what's the level of severity."

Fauci said a more transmissible virus that doesn't cause more severe illness and doesn't lead to a surge of hospitalizations and deaths was the "best case scenario."

"The worst case scenario is that it is not only highly transmissible, but it also causes severe disease and then you have another wave of infections that are not necessarily blunted by the vaccine or by people's prior infections," he added.

"I don't think that worst case scenario is going to come about, but you never know."

US reports 1st Omicron case in California

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 2: The United States has announced its first confirmed case of Omicron, the new variant of Covid, in a traveller who has recently returned from South Africa.

This is the first known case of the new variant, first identified by South African scientists, in the US, as several reports now suggest that the variant was present in Europe before South Africa reported the first case.

Much about the new variant is not known yet, but its emergence has created fresh apprehension across the world with most of the countries putting travel restrictions.

The traveller was fully vaccinated against Covid but did not receive any booster dose.

The person returned from South Africa on November 22. All his contacts have tested negative.

The person tested positive on November 29 and was in self-quarantine.

At present, the patient is recovering from the symptoms. "We feel good that this patient not only had mild symptoms but actually the symptoms appear to be improving," US top health official Anthony Fauci said.

The San Francisco health department and California's state health department jointly confirmed the case issuing a statement that the variant was found thanks to the state's testing and genome sequencing surveillance.

According to reports, the passenger began her travel back to the United States on November 21 and landed in San Francisco on November 22.

On November 25, the person experienced symptoms and three days later for testing. The sequencing was done by the University of California.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not investigating any other potential Omicron cases in the US, reports said.

The new variant was identified in under 30 hours "from the time of collection to strain information", it has been said.

The Governor of California said there is no reason to panic but everyone should remain vigilant.




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