By Jim Kouri
President Barack Obama has said that the Departments of State and Homeland Security are working together to improve and speed up the visa process for certain categories of travelers, according to a State Department statement on Thursday.
Under the new initiative qualified foreign visitors who were interviewed and thoroughly screened in conjunction with a prior visa application may be able to renew their visas without undergoing another interview, the statement said.
“Eliminating interviews for these applicants will save them time and money and encourage them to choose the United States again as their tourism destination. It will also free our resources to interview more first-time applicants,” it said.
The pilot program will streamline visa processing for certain low-risk applicants, such as individuals renewing expired visas, or some categories of younger or older first-time applicants.
Over the course of the year, this policy could open as many as 100,000 interview appointments for Chinese travelers applying for visas for the first time. That increase in tourism could support as many as 1,500 travel and tourism-related jobs in the U.S., according to the statement.
The Obama White House has boasted that the U.S. has developed an intensive, multi-layered visa screening process, including multiple biographic and biometric checks, all supported by a sophisticated global information technology network. U.S. consular officials perform security checks on every visa applicant, without exception.
However, studies and probes of the U.S. visa system have shown that the entire process is fraught with problems and abuse.The majority of visitors who are tracked depart on time, but others overstay — and since September 11, 2001, the question has arisen as to whether overstay issues might have an impact on domestic security.
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Significant numbers of foreign visitors overstay their authorized periods of admission. Based in part on its long-standing I-94 system for tracking arrivals and departures, the Department of Homeland Security estimated the overstay population at about 4.5 million. But this estimate excludes an unknown number of long-term overstays from Mexico and Canada, and by definition and it excludes short-term overstays from these and other countries.
Because of unresolved weaknesses in DHS’s long-standing tracking system (e.g., non-collection of some departure forms), there is no accurate list of overstays. Tracking system weaknesses make it difficult to monitor potentially suspicious aliens who enter the country legally — and limit immigration control options. Post-September 11 operations identified thousands of overstays and other illegal immigrant workers who (despite limited background checks) had obtained critical infrastructure jobs and security badges with access to, for example, airport tarmacs and U.S. military bases.
While federal investigators have arrested more than 1,360 illegal workers, the majority have eluded apprehension. Together with other improvements, better information on overstays might contribute to a layered national defense that is better able to counter threats from foreign terrorists or other unwanted visitors.
For example, the Chinese visitors may be visiting the U.S. as part of China’s immense espionage operation within the United States and Europe.