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17 April 2003

U.S. Committed to Achieving Both "Secure Borders" and "Open Doors"

(Assistant secretary for consular affairs comments on U.S. visa
regulations) (2250)


"Secure borders" and "open doors" -- two goals of U.S. visa policy --
are not mutually exclusive, according to Maura Harty, Assistant
Secretary for Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Speaking April 16 at a forum on "Sustaining Exchanges While Securing
Borders" in Washington, Harty said the United States values visitors
from overseas, and she outlined government efforts taken to achieve
both security and openness.

"We are an open society. We welcome the diversity and richness of
experience that attends international exchange. We must not, as
Secretary [of State Colin Powell] Powell has said so eloquently,
become a gated America," Harty told an audience of international
educators gathered at George Washington University.

Discussing changes in U.S. visa policy since September 11, 2001, the
assistant secretary said the United States now requires more
information from all applicants and places more emphasis on the visa
interview.

In addition, if security concerns are indicated when a name is run
through a database, an interagency review in Washington may be
required.

While fewer than 2.5 percent of visa applicants worldwide are referred
for additional background checks through interagency review, Harty
said that "glitches in interagency communications" have resulted in
significant delays for those applicants, particularly toward the end
of 2002.

But she said the government has "made great strides forward" toward
solving these problems and at present 80 percent of these cases are
cleared within two weeks of application.

"We are making continued improvements in the efficiency of this
process, without sacrificing anything in thoroughness," added Harty.

The assistant secretary explained that most visa denials are based not
on security concerns but on the statutory requirement that applicants
for non-immigrant visas be presumed ineligible until they establish to
the satisfaction of a consular officer their "entitlement to a legal
nonimmigrant status."

"Most applicants who fail this test do so either because their
economic and family situation makes them seem likely to overstay their
visas or because their stated reasons for visiting the United States
do not seem credible," she said.

In response to rumors that the United States is denying all visas or
large numbers of applicants indiscriminately, Harty said, "the reality
is that the laws relevant to visa eligibility have changed only
slightly since September 11."

"While procedures have been tightened substantially, we have made
every effort to minimize inconvenience to the applicant," added Harty,
who said the United States continues to welcome legitimate visa
applicants and issue millions of visas. "We want to facilitate
legitimate travel just as we want to identify those who might want to
do this country harm," she said.

She encouraged potential visitors to visit a new Web site,
www.unitedstatesvisas.gov, designed as a single point of access to
information about U.S. visa policy and procedures.

Following is the text of Harty's remarks as prepared for delivery:

(begin text)

Remarks by Maura Harty
Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs
Open forum on "Sustaining Exchanges While Securing Borders"
The George Washington University
Washington, D.C.
April 16, 2003

I'm happy to be here today and to have this opportunity to share with
you some comments on visa regulations and educational exchange.

America's educational institutions are a national treasure and one of
the main attractions for foreign visitors, who continue to view the
United States as the premier place to study.

I believe that international educational and cultural exchange is one
of our most potent means of influencing world opinion and developing
lasting and meaningful relationships. Such exchanges add strength to
this nation in the realm of ideas and, frankly speaking, add to our
national bottom line.

Department of Commerce data places U.S. Higher education as the
country's fifth largest service sector export. International students
contribute some $12 billion annually to this nation's economy in the
form of tuition, living expenses and related costs. Nearly 75% of
student funding comes from personal and family sources outside the
United States. The national interest in encouraging this exchange is
obvious.

I think however that it is important for you to hear me repeat what
Secretary Powell has said many times since the terrible attacks of
September 11, 2001. Consular officers serve in the front line of this
nation's defense as they interview visa applicants around the world.
They do their job with security in mind first. But they are also
mindful of the great strengths of this country which must be nurtured
and preserved. We are an open society. We welcome the diversity and
richness of experience that attends international exchange. We must
not, as Secretary Powell has said so eloquently, become a gated
America.

Our policy toward the visa function is best summarized in the phrase,
"secure borders, open doors."

Let me talk first about secure borders. The events of September 11
made clear to the public something that consular officers have long
keenly felt: the moment of visa adjudication is the first and best
opportunity we have to keep dangerous people out of the United States.
Since September 11, we have redoubled our efforts to use that
opportunity to best effect.

Security review procedures in place before September 11, 2001, are
still in effect, with some additional procedures now also in place. We
are requiring more information from all visa applicants, and
scrutinizing every application more closely. We are placing more
emphasis on the visa interview, as an opportunity to assess the
applicant's credibility face to face. We have established additional
screening requirements in many cases, whereby the consular officer
must refer certain categories of applications for an interagency
review in Washington. Working closely with other U.S. Government
agencies, we have vastly expanded the visa lookout database, against
which every applicant is checked before visa issuance. We have also
taken steps toward implementing a statutory mandate to incorporate
biometric identifiers in U.S. Visas.

I should point out that most visa denials are based not on security
concerns, but rather on the statutory requirement that each applicant
for a non-immigrant visa must be presumed ineligible until he or she
establishes to the satisfaction of a consular officer his or her
entitlement to a legal nonimmigrant status. Most applicants who fail
this test do so either because their economic and family situation
makes them seem likely to overstay their visas, or because their
stated reasons for visiting the U.S. do not seem credible.

To sum up our "secure borders" policy, our goal is to make sure that
the visa issuance process is as secure as possible and supports our
overall security and counter-terrorism efforts, taking into account
all intelligence and law enforcement information available to the U.S.
Government, so that -- with the addition of the immigration check and
review at the border, and taking advantage of the enhanced
capabilities of the new Department of Homeland Security -- it will
form a coordinated and interlocking network of border security in
which the American people and our many foreign visitors can have
confidence.

The other aspect of our approach to visa work is, I suspect, also of
great interest to this group. Open doors.

We in the Department of State, who study foreign languages and live
and work abroad for extended periods, are acutely aware of the
importance to our country of international exchange. We deal with
foreigners every day, and we know from experience that the vast
majority of visa applicants harbor no ill intent. On the contrary,
they seek to come for family reasons, tourism, business, studies, and
cultural exchange. They generally support and admire the United
States, and they tend to return to their home countries with a
favorable impression, spreading their views to others.

Visa demand was strong throughout the last decade, rising from 7
million in 1993 to 9.5 million in 2000. Since 9/11 that trend has gone
into reverse; demand fell off immediately after September 11, and
although visa applications are up in some countries, overall demand
has declined dramatically. For planning purposes we project 6 million
applications for the current fiscal year.

What are the reasons for this decline?

Travelers are concerned about the risk of terrorist attacks on
airplanes or airports.

Some may be put off by greater security measures at airports.

Some may fear that foreigners are less welcome in the U.S. today than
at other times in our history.

Some decide not to travel because of the global economic downturn.

Some may stay away because of antipathy toward a particular U.S.
Foreign policy.

With these possible reasons, and I am sure many others, it is
impossible for us to tell to what extent people are deterred from
coming to the U.S. by concerns about the perceived difficulty of the
visa process.

Many applicants have heard stories about long delays in visa approval.
It is true that, during the latter part of 2002, we experienced real
glitches in interagency communications, resulting in significant
delays for those travelers whose visas required referral to
Washington. While we have not entirely solved these problems, we have
made major strides forward. At this point, more than 80 percent of
such cases are cleared within two weeks of application, and we are
making continued improvements in the efficiency of this process,
without sacrificing anything in thoroughness.

One area in which we are still experiencing longer delays involves
vetting of applicants whose travel raises concerns of possible harmful
transfer of high technology. Of course, we recognize that this part of
the process will often affect scholars and exchange students.

Let me assure you that we are working closely with other federal
agencies, such as the departments of Homeland Security and Justice, to
implement a process for tracking the status of foreign students that
is minimally disruptive and less time-consuming.

I know that you are concerned with the impact that the implementation
of the Department of Homeland Security's SEVIS (Student and Exchange
Visitor Information System) database has had on our ability to issue
visas to students, exchange visitors and their dependents in a timely
manner.

First, let me give you the good news; at this time, well over 400,000
SEVIS records have been posted to our consular consolidated database.

This data is made available to consular officers around the world for
adjudication, record keeping and reporting. We have issued tens of
thousands of student and exchange visitor visas since the full
implementation of SEVIS on February 15.

And while we, too, know that some SEVIS records are still not being
made available to our embassies and consulates, due to technical
glitches, I can tell you that state and DHS data technicians cooperate
daily to locate, correct, if necessary, and forward these SEVIS files
to our consular consolidated database. This is a small number of
cases, and they are receiving a great deal of attention.

Many unsubstantiated rumors have circulated, indicating that we are
denying all visas, or large groups of applicants, indiscriminately.
The reality is that the laws relevant to visa eligibility have changed
only slightly since September 11. While procedures have been tightened
substantially, we have made every effort to minimize inconvenience to
the applicant.

Yes, there are new name check procedures in some cases. To put the
issue of special clearances into perspective though, it is important
for you to know that fewer than 2.5% of visa applicants worldwide are
subject to additional background and security checks. The other 97.5%,
if otherwise eligible and approved for issuance, generally receive
their visas in one or two days.

The most important thing we can do to dispel unwarranted concerns
about the visa process is to provide information and predictability.
We want the public to know that we continue to welcome legitimate visa
applicants, and we continue to issue millions of visas. We want to
facilitate legitimate travel just as we want to identify those who
might want to do this country harm.

The state department has established a web site,
www.UnitedStatesVisas.gov, to provide public information about visa
policy and procedures. I would encourage you and your foreign
interlocutors to check this site, as well as our main site,
www.travel.state.gov.

You in the academic community occupy key positions in promoting the
public image of the United States abroad. I have no doubt that you
understand the reasons for our primary emphasis in the visa process on
"secure borders," and I hope that you also are clear that we remain
strongly committed to the "open doors" aspect of visa work.

We want the world to know that we value our visitors and that we want
them to come to the United States to enjoy the richness our country
has to offer in so many areas. We want them and our own citizens to be
safe while they are here. Toward that end we are taking extra
precautions, but America remains an open and welcoming country.

I do not believe that we need to choose between secure borders and
open doors. Together with our partners and colleagues in other
agencies of government, we at the Department of State are committed to
achieving both goals. We hope that the very valuable asset of
international exchange continues to thrive -- in a nation that is both
open and secure for its citizens as well as those who would join us
here.

Thank you.

(end text)

(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)