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Close look at US visa applicants raises fears of long wait

Washington, May 25: The state department has ordered foreign service officers in many nations to begin face-to-face interviews with millions of visa applicants who previously have not merited such scrutiny, a step that will result in month-long backlogs, according to officials and documents.

The rules, formally issued in a cable sent to 221 embassies and consulates Wednesday, have prompted strong objections from business, education and tourism groups. They say that longer delays in obtaining visas will discourage foreign nationals from visiting the US at a time when the economy is still struggling.

The heightened scrutiny will be applied to about 90 per cent of visa applicants from countries in West Asia, Asia and Latin America, with general exceptions for diplomats and people 16 and younger or 60 and older. The rules will not affect citizens of Canada and 27 other countries — most of them in Europe — who are not required to obtain US business or tourist visas, and who make up about half of the 35 million people who visit the US each year. US consulates have until August 1 to implement the new regulations.

“This is probably going to add a lot more time to the process and could bog the system down very seriously,” said Randy Johnson, vice-president for labour, immigration and employee benefits at the US Chamber of Commerce. “These are businessmen coming in to make deals with American businessmen, as well as workers coming in to help our economy. If it’s going to take six months or more to get a visa, why would anyone bother'”

The policy change is part of an array of new restrictions designed to improve security and monitoring of visitors in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. The government has also established a new internet-based registration system for foreign students and now requires visitors from many Muslim countries to register and be fingerprinted at ports of entry.

For months, the departments of justice and homeland security have advocated increasing the number of visa interviews. The homeland security department now has jurisdiction over visa policy.

But many in US diplomatic circles strongly opposed the new rules, in part because applicants already must wait three months or more for visas in many locations. The cable announcing the policy change warned that the additional interviews must be handled “using existing resources” and without offering overtime hours to employees.

Foreign posts “should develop appointment systems and public-relations strategies to mitigate as much as possible the impact of these changes,” the cable read. Technically, US law already requires non-immigrant visa applicants to submit to in-person interviews, which generally last two to three minutes. But state department rules have traditionally given consular officials broad leeway in granting exceptions.

State department officials said they do not keep track of the proportion of visa applicants required to submit to interviews, but outside immigration experts estimate that as little as 20 per cent are required to do so in some countries. Nearly 5.8 million business and tourist visas were issued in fiscal 2002, officials said. Besides visitors from visa waiver countries, the rest of the visitors to the US fall into a variety of categories.

Stuart Patt, a spokesman for the US Bureau of Consular Affairs in the state department, said applicants who submit to face-to-face interviews are commonly asked about their destinations and plans in the US.

By requiring the interviews, Patt said, US officials hope to increase their chances of catching terrorists or preventing them from attempting to obtain visas.

One of the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators, Ramzi Binalshibh, was rejected for a U.S. visa on four occasions and never entered the country. He is now in U.S. custody.

Advocates of stricter U.S. immigration policies have repeatedly criticized the State Department since Sept. 11 for failing to properly scrutinize visa applicants.

A General Accounting Office study found that at least 13 of the 15 hijackers from Saudi Arabia were never interviewed by U.S. consular officers before they were granted visas, and none had filled in his application properly. Three hijackers obtained their documents through travel agents under a "visa express" program that has since been abandoned.

But many Foreign Service officers complain that they are already overburdened by their workload. Some fear that increasing interviews will only increase the chances of mistakes.

Patt said that "pragmatic factors were a consideration," but those problems have been worked out.

The State Department cable notes that the department will "try to provide the resources necessary to cope with any additional workload, but expects and accepts that many posts will face processing backlogs for the indefinite future."

Business and tourism leaders said that while they applaud the goal of improved security, the State Department could cause serious economic damage if it does not provide sufficient staff to handle demand. Higher education groups have expressed alarm that the rules could reduce travel by instructors and students from overseas.

Jack Connors, executive vice president for public policy at the American Hotel & Lodging Association, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Colin . Powell that "if the proposed requirement is implemented without significant increases in staffing at our consulates, there will be severe backlogs causing a sharp decrease in business and tourist travel to the United States."

The group said in a statement yesterday that "unfortunately, it appears that the State Department is moving ahead in implementing the regulation without devoting the necessary resources."

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