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01 August 2003

State Department Conducting More Interviews with Visa Applicants

Step comes as part of ongoing national security review

The U.S. State Department has announced new procedures for processing nonimmigrant visa applications for travel to the United States. A Bureau of Consular Affairs official told a Washington briefing July 30 that the new procedures, effective August 1, are intended to increase the security of the United States and create greater uniformity in visa processing at U.S. consulates worldwide.

The visa application process requires that the applicant appear before a consular officer for a personal interview, though some waivers of the interview are allowed. The State Department has revised the categories of applicants who may be eligible for these waivers. In practice, the new requirements will mean that more visa applicants will need to schedule interviews and the visa approval process could take more time than in the past.

Stephen A. "Tony" Edson of the Bureau of Consular Affairs said waivers of the personal interview may be considered for the following categories of applicants: those under 16 or over 60 years of age, employees or officials of foreign governments, persons who have previously applied for a visa and not violated their nonimmigrant status, and persons for whom national interests warrant consideration of a waiver.

Edson acknowledged that the new procedures "may cause some delays" but added that the State Department remains committed to maintaining a timely process and does not intend to impede the process for "travelers whose presence we value."

Following is the transcript of the briefing:

(begin transcript)

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER
WASHINGTON, D.C.
JULY 30, 2003

FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING
TONY EDSON, SENIOR ADVISOR FOR STRATEGIC PLANNING, VISA SERVICES DIRECTORATE, BUREAU OF CONSULAR AFFAIRS, DEPARTMENT OF STATE

"NEW VISA PROCEDURES"

MODERATOR PAUL. DENIG: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center in Washington. A special welcome to journalists assembled in the Foreign Press Centers in New York and Los Angeles.

We are pleased to be able to welcome today to our podium, Tony Edson, the Senior Advisor for Strategic Planning in the Visa Services Directorate of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. He will be briefing today on new visa procedures. Mr. Edson will have an opening statement and after that will be glad to take your questions.

Tony.

MR. EDSON: Good afternoon. I would like to start briefly reviewing the difference between a visa and our own port of entry procedures just so that there is a clear understanding of what the Department of State does with visa processing, as opposed to what our immigration personnel do, and then we'll move into a brief review of some changes we have made to our policy regarding interviews of visa applicants.

A visa means that a U.S. consular officer has reviewed an individual's application, and that the officer has made a preliminary determination that the individual is eligible to enter the United States for a specific purpose, the purpose that matches the visa in question.

The visa itself does not permit the individual to enter the U.S., only to apply for entry into the United States. They are allowed to travel to the port of entry, by land or air, and then their application for entry into the U.S. is reviewed by immigration personnel. Immigration personnel, who now work for the Department of Homeland Security, make entry decisions based on the law and based on Department of Homeland Security rules and regulation.

What we'll be talking about today is the part that goes on overseas, what consular officers do when reviewing visa applications. With the exception of travelers eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, under the law of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, all non-immigrant applicants are required to personally appear before a consular officer unless that personal appearance is waived.

Waivers have only been available for a limited number of categories, and the determination of whether or not to waive personal appearance for a visa applicant overseas has been left up to the discretion of the adjudicating consular officer.

The Department of State has evaluated the regulations concerning the categories of applicants for whom a waiver is available, and has decided that a more secure process requires greater worldwide uniformity. Therefore, a decision has been made to revise the personal appearance waiver categories in order to further strengthen the visa process. These revised regulations will be effective on August 1st, 2003.

Since September 11, 2001, we have engaged in an ongoing review of visa processes, as it relates to the security of our nation. In this process, we have greatly increased the rate of personal interviews to meet national security goals.

As a result, many of our posts overseas, many of our consular offices are already handling a visa interview workload quite similar to what will be required under the new regulations. We have a net increase of 39 new consular positions in this fiscal year, and another 80 consular positions will be added in fiscal year 2004.

The revision of the regulations will also help us prepare for the August 26, 2004, congressionally imposed deadline, when, in order to collect biometric indicators for applicants, we'll need to have all applicants appear personally.

Under these revised regulations, the ones that go into effect on August 1st, nonimmigrant visa applicants for whom a waiver of personal appearance may be granted include: individuals under the age of 16 and over the age of 60; foreign government officials and persons working for accredited international organizations; repeat applicants who have demonstrated their eligibility, have not previously violated nonimmigrant status and whose visa has expired within 12 months of application -- that's the wordiest one -- and persons for whom national interests or unusual circumstances warrant consideration.

In addition, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services may grant an exception to a defined class of visa applicants. Requests for such exceptions are closely scrutinized and based on a careful evaluation of national security interests, as well as host country conditions and circumstances. To date, only limited exceptions have been granted.

We emphasize that the new procedures regarding visa and travel document requirements may cause some delays. However, we remain committed to timely processing of nonimmigrant visa applications while remaining in compliance with and mindful of our national and border security requirements.

We continue to work to ensure that access to our country is not impeded for those international travelers whose presence we value. And we are determined to preserve the crucial benefits provided by these international visitors to the United States, as we work to strengthen the visa process' security.

For example, we're giving special priority right now to students and academic visitors when scheduling interviews during the summer months, as a way of trying to ensure that this important class of visitors makes it to the United States in time for their academic programs to begin in the fall.

That's all I had prepared for you in prepared remarks.

MR. DENIG: Okay. We'll start with questions by going to Los Angeles and New York. We'll go to Los Angeles first. And if you will just identify yourself and your news organization please.

QUESTION: Yes, my name is Andrew Gumbel, from The Independent of Britain. I had a question about applying for visas, both immigrant and nonimmigrant. I believe that it used to be possible to apply for these anywhere at the world at any U.S. Consulate, and that now the rules have changed and certain restrictions apply to where you can go to get certain categories of visas. I was hoping you could clarify that for us.

MR. EDSON: Yes. I mean, I am not sure I completely understand the question. You can apply for a visa -- if our office processes immigrant visas, and we have a much smaller number of offices which process immigration cases. You can apply for the immigrant visa case at any place where you are normally resident. It gets a little more complicated than that, but it has to do with where you live.

In the nonimmigrant visa case, you can apply for it anywhere where you are physically present. If it is not the place where you normally reside, it is more difficult for our Consular personnel to evaluate the application. That's more difficult to process. With the increase in the use of appointment systems and whatever backlogs might develop with those appointment systems, it obviously is more difficult for people to apply for a visa at a particular place on the fly than perhaps it used to be.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Next question for Los Angeles.

QUESTION: My name is Fastner with RTL Television Germany. Those changes which is going to take effect on August 1st, what actually does it mean for people who have to revalidate the visa? Is there anything else which is going to be different? Do we have to fill out the forms differently, or what does it actually mean?

MR. EDSON: For the most part, with revalidating your visas, revalidating here, for the sake of this discussion, let's say that we're talking about the same category of visa. You're getting another visa in the same category in the place where you normally live.

For the most part, all we would be asking you to do would be to supply the passport that had that old visa in it, and then the application would be reviewed usually without personal appearance and without an interview for now. The consular officer can always require an interview if after reviewing the application it appears necessary.

MR. DENIG: Any more questions from Los Angeles?

All right. Then let's move to New York. New York, your question.

QUESTION: Oren Yaniv from Israel. There were reports today in the Israeli media that the waiting period for visa has been reduced to one week from three months, or three weeks to those who were born in Arab countries. Can you confirm that, or is there any time period that you can put forth for a visa after the interview?

MR. EDSON: No. The waiting periods you're discussing, I think, apply to a number of different things. There is the waiting period that may be involved in waiting for an appointment for an interview. That will vary with all of our posts, and it varies with the time of year. Actually, this time of year right now, as I said, we are prioritizing students in most of our posts. And so it would vary depending on the visa category as well.

In addition, there may or may not, depending on the visa category and other factors, be special screening requirements, special processing requirements. Those also vary depending on the visa category and the nature of the travel involved, and that waiting period also changes and fluctuates at different geographic locations and times of year.

We are committed to doing our best to making those waiting periods predictable, so that we can inform the public, as best we can, what they're looking forward to, what they are looking at when they apply for a visa. We're working on that.

QUESTION: One more question regarding other reports that Israel may be included in the waiver program. (Inaudible) reported about that last week.

MR. DENIG: I'm sorry. Could you start the question again please?

QUESTION: Can you clarify that? Is there any possibility that Israel will be included at some stage in the waiver program?

MR. DENIG: Could you repeat the question, please?

QUESTION: That Israel may be included in the waiver program, the 27 countries that do not require a visa? Is that at all a possibility, or are you aware of any workings towards that?

MR. EDSON: I am not aware of any discussions of expanding the number of countries included in the waiver program.

MR. DENIG: New York, do you have any other questions?

QUESTION: Phoenix Television. I have two questions. The first one, since there is a limitation for questions being asked, one of my colleagues would like to know -- it's about -- it's for ourselves -- does a foreign journalist have to go back to the country for interviews -- for interviews for renewing the visas?

And my second question is, since it will be an increasing workload for visa application in overseas U.S. embassy, and then will this kind of change eventually reflect on the visa application fee eventually?

And then, is there any websites or handout or official documents we can get about this change of visa application procedure?

Thank you.

MR. EDSON: I'll start from the back and work forward here. There is no change in procedures. This is essentially an internal change in the way we handle applications. And so other than applying early, as early as practical in your individual circumstances, there is nothing that the traveling public needs to do. We will then process the cases and work with the public on a case-by-case basis.

In terms of the fee, we charge a machine-readable visa fee for processing applications that is assessed on a cost reimbursable basis required by U.S. law. Periodically, a cost of service study is done, and that fee is adjusted. Depending on the cost of providing services, that would be done again. That really is not directly linked to any changes that would be made in the application process.

Journalists' visas, I-visas, you still should be able, as far as I'm aware....

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. EDSON: We're still revalidating here the same way you always have, no change there.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: Website?

MR. EDSON: Website. The Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs website is travel.state.gov, and it has links to the Department of Homeland Security sites, which are also important in a lot of this, and in whatever information is available on our own processes as they change.

MR. DENIG: Each one of our embassy websites should also reflect any changes that occur and provide full information.

Okay. Let's go to Washington. And let's just start right up front here with this lady. Please use the microphone, identify yourself and your news organization.

QUESTION: Salmy Hashim, Malaysian News Agency. First question is that, whether this questionnaire that you're giving out to applicants, is that standard all over the world, or does it defer if it's a Muslim country?

And is there a quota in accepting visa applicants from Muslim countries like, you know, certain numbers are only allowed from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia or other Middle Eastern countries?

And I think that's it for now.

MR. EDSON: Okay. The application forms are standard and are published on the Internet. We have a standard nonimmigrant --

QUESTION: Not forms, the questionnaire by the interviewer.

MR. EDSON: Oh, the questions that an interviewer might ask?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. EDSON: I am hesitating because the purpose of the interview is standard worldwide. We are trying to assess whether an applicant qualifies for the visa in the category in which they are applying, and at the same time assess whether there are national security issues that might arise. Based on the circumstances, based on the answers to the first questions, that interview can go any number of directions. There is no special list of questions that are asked in one country or another.

QUESTION: Quota?

MR. EDSON: Quota. No, there are no quotas at all.

MR. DENIG: All right. The gentleman up front here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), India (inaudible) Today. The question is that India, as far as India is concerned, why they are already overloaded with the work inside the visa -- in the U.S. Embassy in Delhi. Now with the new changes, what -- how much it will affect the people in India getting the visas?

And also, we had a call from a lady here in the U.S. She is a green card holder, and she applied about two years ago for her family in Delhi to come here. Like, but in the meantime, young husband died last month. She had to leave for India. Now how many -- much chance does she have, you know, (inaudible) the visas to bring her three children here since she is an immigrant for the last three years?

MR. EDSON: All right. On the first question, I didn't come with the statistics on our individual posts, what sort of workload they have, and what sort of backlog they have. It is possible that the number of people interviewed in our post in India is quite high already; and that, therefore, these changes will make very little difference. But I don't know. I can't give you specifics.

On the second question, I really can't give you any specifics either because it depends so much on the individual case. She would need to speak with our consular section there, or with the Department of Homeland Security.

QUESTION: The chances that they might have a sensitivity for her.

MR. EDSON: She would need to speak to someone who is in a position to evaluate all the details and decide whether her -- children you said, right? -- whether they qualify for U.S. visas in some category. It's just difficult to speak hypothetically about.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Let's take the lady right here, and we'll follow with Andrei.

QUESTION: Charlene Porter from the Washington File. Would you clarify again the status of the 27 countries where nonimmigrants did not require a visa? And if that status does remain the same then would you put that in the context of your earlier comment that one objective of this is to create a greater uniformity in how these are handled?

MR. EDSON: Right. The visa waiver countries fall under a special program allowing travel to the United States without a visa. The expansion or the regularization of our interview requirements applies to applicants who need visas. The visa waiver travelers not requiring visas do not require interviews. There will be no change. In terms of the context of greater global regularity, because that is a regular very, very tightly defined program under U.S. law, the consistency that we are after is there.

QUESTION: You are saying that the 27 countries are identified under a separate section of the law?

MR. EDSON: Right.

QUESTION: And so you are not tinkering with that part of the law in these changes?

MR. EDSON: Correct.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

MR. EDSON: Actually, we're not tinkering with any part of the law. It's a regulatory change, but a procedural change in regulatory.

QUESTION: My name is Andrei Sitov with the Russian News Agency TASS. Thank you for coming. I guess some of us want to talk to you as a visa officer and to ask you technical questions, and I am no exception, but I want to ask first a political question.

Our embassy here complains that you basically break the understanding that you have. And I guess it's formalized in a document or something, especially on the amount of time that it takes you to approve visas, even for official visitors.

Quite recently, a few days ago, we have had this mini scandal where a couple of high ranking officials from the Russian Space Agency were only given visas at the last moment. Basically, they had to cancel their tickets; and then at the very last moment, they were issued visas and they came.

So, basically, the question is -- of course, I am not asking you to comment on specific cases -- but since Secretary Powell once told me that you don't break agreements, you either withdraw from them or you change them or you don't -- you don't sign them in the first place.

What is your plan, at this point, to change the understanding, to change the documents that you have for that kind of visas, official visas?

MR. EDSON: In the context of my earlier comments about the interview policy?

QUESTION: No, it's not. It's in the context of visa regulations, yes.

MR. EDSON: I can't give you an answer. I don't know enough about the details of that bilateral agreement. I'm aware of that agreement, but I am not aware of the details of the implementation at this point.

QUESTION: And you wouldn't be able to confirm or deny the fact that this agreement is being broken, basically, not being complied with?

MR. EDSON: No, I could confirm that we are complying with it within our understanding of the agreement. But I don't know the details, and I am not involved in that operation.

QUESTION: Technically, I guess the most important question for us here, especially here, is -- and my office ran into this situation at least once where we have had a visa question, a visa issue. And the person involved had to leave and get a new visa to come back, and the problem there was we couldn't figure out whom to talk to. There was no one.

The State Department said it's not their issue because the visa is issued by the embassy. The INS, at that point, basically, was inapproachable. We corresponded with them, but we spent money on a lawyer and we never got anything.

Basically, the question is: Is there a plan to establish a contact point for people on visa issues, where such issues could be looked at, and maybe if not a decision, then a recommendation could be given to someone in this similar position?

MR. EDSON: Yes, although I am not sure that it speaks directly to your question. We have infrastructure to handle inquiries concerning visa problems and visa questions. They don't always have to be problems. We're aware that that infrastructure now needs improvement, and it's being improved.

This is at the Department of State. It's being improved as I speak. I can't give you a timeline, but we hope to have a call center with expanded capability in place soon. We have looked constantly at our website and tried to make sure that that's more responsive, as responsive as possible.

On the other side, we do share responsibility, as we discussed early on, with the Department of Homeland Security, and sometimes it is difficult for the public to figure out where to send those questions to. I know that that's also an issue that they are looking out for, that public information function.

QUESTION: And last thing. I understand there is no change in the I-visas that involves us, all of us here.

MR. EDSON: No change in the I-visas.

QUESTION: And another thing that we usually come across is when we have people visiting, sometimes on official business, sometimes, frankly, people who probably want to come as basically business tourists, and they ask us for support. Does that make any sense if we send a letter of support or something? Is it really relevant?

MR. EDSON: I mean, for the most part, we're evaluating the application in terms of the individual application, in terms of that individual applicant's expressed interest in traveling to the United States, and their ties to their home country. They are in certain visa categories, perhaps, their technical background or education background, and does it match the stated goal for travel into the United States.

It might be the case that an expression of support from your organization would be germane. In most cases, I suspect, it probably isn't. It just depends on whether their travel has something to do with your organization. And it would be appropriate in that case to help them out.

MR. DENIG: Take you over here, and then we'll take Thomas in the second row.

QUESTION: T.V. Parsuraman, Press Trust of India. Last year, when the 27 countries were announced for visa restrictions or other new visa rules, there was a statement I believe that from January 1st, next year, the same rules will apply to all countries except the visa waiver countries. And I was wondering whether that is true.

And, secondly, there have been reports recently in the (inaudible) that this summer, the number of students coming to this country from abroad for learning English, is down sharply because they couldn't get their applications in time.

MR. EDSON: Okay. On the first question, I am not -- I am not completely clear of what we're talking about. NSEERS, correct?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. EDSON: And that leads me to believe -- when I was answering your question, we were talking about visa waiver, the number 27 is coming up. NSEERS is a program administered by the Department of Homeland Security, and there were discussions of that being a prototype for exit/entry systems. That's not something we're involved in implementing, so I can't answer that question.

I have also read the same press reports of a reduction in the number of students. I am not sure what the question was.

QUESTION: Whether the report is true, and whether you're doing anything about it.

MR. EDSON: Well, as I had said before, we are trying to do what we can to prioritize the applications of students, so that they can get here in time for their programs. Summer programs are going to be problematic because they're of shorter duration. If someone is late, they have missed the program. But we're committed to doing what we can to improve.

We're not satisfied that even our best this year will necessarily be acceptable. We would like to improve the situation so that anyone who applies in a timely manner can get to the United States for whatever program it is. I read the same article. I know that there is a reduction in applications, but I don't have numbers.

QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian, An Nahar, Lebanon. My first question is regarding your remarks of the question that you noted at the beginning that getting a visa doesn't mean you can enter the country.

I mean, can you clarify a little bit? Does it mean that people who have a visa from a certain country, they can come here, and then can be returned back to their country?

MR. EDSON: Correct.

QUESTION: Is that correct?

MR. EDSON: That is correct.

MR. DENIG: That's always been the case.

MR. EDSON: Yeah, that's not a change. There was --

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. EDSON: We have a split system in the United States.

QUESTION: But you (inaudible) to mentioning about this Homeland Security.

MR. EDSON: Right.

QUESTION: What is the percentage of people returned?

MR. EDSON: I don't know. We don't have anything to do with the ports of entry.

QUESTION: Okay. The second question is regarding this -- you don't know exactly how much (inaudible) happened because of this new system or the possibility of application of the waiting list. How many applicants are there before this system applied, or before the delay started?

MR. EDSON: This system you're referring to, all changes in security?

QUESTION: That, let's say, visas were issued all over the world.

A PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Sorry.

MR. PATT: I'm Stuart Patt from the Bureau of Consular Affairs. If you're asking how many visas were issued before September 11, for our fiscal year 2001, which ended September 30, 2001, essentially at the time of the attack, that year we had a little over 10 million applications for nonimmigrant visas, and we issued about 7.5 million that year.

This past fiscal year, [fiscal year 2002, which ended September 30, 2002] we had approximately 8 million applications -- I think it's 7.9 million -- and we issued around 5.5, 5.7 million of them. So the number, the percentage of those who were denied a visa has gone up slightly, but the biggest change has been a decline in a number of applications, and that decline happened long before we started instituting any of these policies Mr. Edson is talking about.

Immediately after 9/11, we, in the year after that, had a drop of more than 25 percent in number of applications received. So it's impossible for us to really tell you how much is related to a change in the world economy, how much is related to security, how much is related to our policies.

QUESTION: The other question is related to the date you have mentioned which is August 26, 2004.

MR. EDSON: October 26.

QUESTION: Sorry, October 26.

QUESTION: You did say August.

MR. EDSON: Oh, October 26, 2004.

QUESTION: And you mention -- what is this stage, new stage in application or new stage in visa?

MR. EDSON: Yes, October 26, 2004, is the legislated deadline in the Enhanced Border Security Act for implementation of biometrics in all U.S. travel documents -- visas -- and in our visas issued overseas, which means, at a minimum, the ICAO standard, some form of facial recognition standard, and, in addition, probably some form of fingerprint or other biometric that's under discussion and review right now.

QUESTION: The eyeprint, whatever you call it?

MR. EDSON: Yeah, retinal scan or iris or whatever.

QUESTION: August 26th, then?

MR. EDSON: No, I misspoke. October 26th, 2004, is the deadline in the law.

QUESTION: Okay. So it's still a year, 15 months away.

MR. EDSON: Right.

QUESTION: Okay, okay.

QUESTION: Well, that eye picture, fingerprint, what is that?

MR. EDSON: At a minimum, it will be photograph.

QUESTION: Photograph and fingerprint?

MR. EDSON: In addition, it will likely be something else, probably fingerprint, but a final decision has not been made yet.

QUESTION: So the fingerprint is not standard right now? Fingerprint and photo -- I thought they've already -- they're already implementing that, photo and fingerprint.

MR. EDSON: No, we may be talking about two different things. For NSEERS registration, this National Security Entry/Exit Registration System that the Department of Homeland Security manages at the ports of entry, fingerprints are involved in that. We, overseas in the Department of State, we fingerprint only under very limited circumstances today.

QUESTION: So, mainly they are tourists and they are students, and you say nowadays you are focusing on the students, especially with academic year. And let's say sick people or patients want to be treated here. Is going to be different treatment in these different categories, or just like all the same with the same waiting list?

MR. EDSON: Today, as I mentioned, we are trying to prioritize groups that have an imminent need to travel very quickly. I guess, as managers, our goal would be a system that works so smoothly that prioritization would be unnecessary. But as long as it is necessary for us to make special provisions to help ensure the success of programs like academic exchange programs, then we're prepared to do that and we will work to do that.

QUESTION: Question follow-up to what you said. Is there a criteria, or just it's the judgment is the one who is interviewing the person?

MR. EDSON: For?

QUESTION: For this issuing the visa or not.

MR. EDSON: That's a discretionary judgment by the adjudicating consular officer. That's the way our law is written.

MR. DENIG: But that's always been the case.

MR. EDSON: Yeah, that's not a change.

MR. DENIG: All right, let's go to the gentleman next to the pillar here.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Yuri. I'm a Japanese TV reporter with NHK, Japan Broadcasting Corporation. I have three questions.

First question is, well, some tourism and industry companies are really worried -- I mean, the new visa policy might affect the tourism or U.S. economy. How much impact do you assess on the U.S. tourism or U.S. economy? That is the first question.

And the second question is 27 countries of the Visa Waiver Program, that includes Japan too, and they are required to have a machine-readable passport in October, I guess. And for Japan, many Japanese people have got a machine-readable passport, but I've heard like France only half of French people have machine-readable passports. So could you explain what the situation is like, you know, what countries are ready to have a machine-readable passport and which countries are not -- doesn't have a machine-readable passports?

And third question is -- this is the last question -- (laughter) -- is biometrics, just you tall, I mean, you say that we need a biometric visa in next year, in 2004. But, actually, ICAO -- I mean --

MR. EDSON: ICAO?

QUESTION: ICAO has not set up the standard yet, I believe.

MR. EDSON: Right.

QUESTION: And Japan is not ready at all, I mean, to issue the visa or passport of the biometrics. I mean, I just wondered, U.S. has got ready to issue the biometrics visa or passport? And how do you expect to have a biometric visa or passport next year? I think many countries are not ready yet.

MR. EDSON: Well, thank you. These are easy, short questions. (Laughter.) It seems my notes aren't very good. I'm going to go backwards with you too, if I may.

The ICAO standard -- I am not intimate with where it is in this stage. I know it's not finalized, but it's pretty close to being finalized.

What's at stake here, though, is that U.S. law has a deadline for us on our visas, and we will issue our visas with biometrics in them by the October 26th deadline of next year. What other countries would do would be, obviously, up to those other countries, and we have the luxury, because we're complying with our own internal legal requirement, of taking the ICAO standard and then going beyond or doing what we need to with it in order to implement. We also have some experience in this area already so we're already building on that experience and expect to meet the deadline.

The machine-readable passport for Visa Waiver countries: It has been a requirement since the beginning of the Visa Waiver Program in the 1980s that participating countries have programs to issue and eventually replace their passports with machine-readable passports. I don't know on an individual country-by-country basis where they stand.

It's a little difficult to evaluate, obviously, because the fact that a large number of the passport holders in a certain country have the non-machine-readable passports is no measure of how many of them intend to travel to the United States. So it's hard to tell what sort of an impact that change will have on October 1st and in the immediate aftermath.

I assume the first question was about the impact of this regularization of the interview policy on the U.S. economy and tourism. The only thing I would suggest is that most tourists to the United States actually come from the Visa Waiver countries. It's one of the factors that led to the Visa Waiver Program, and so this will have no impact at all on that very large proportion or percentage of the U.S. incoming tourist trade.

We'll do what we can to make sure that any other impact is minimized, but essentially we have taken these steps because it was necessary to improve national security rather than because of a cost-benefit analysis based on the tourist industry per se. I mean, that's part of an overall picture.

QUESTION: Hazel Fergenblatt. I'm from the newspaper La Nacion of Costa Rica. I just want to know from August 1st what changes will there be in the internal procedures of the embassies besides the personal appearance issue?

MR. EDSON: On August 1st itself?

QUESTION: Yeah, is that -- you mentioned that like a deadline for the (inaudible) these changes. Will there be any other -- I'm not clear which other changes will there be from that?

MR. EDSON: Nothing else -- nothing else coming right now on August 1st.

QUESTION: Okay. The only thing will be then the personal appearance?

MR. EDSON: Correct.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MR. EDSON: Well, this is all part of an ongoing process so -- but nothing major. Nothing in the works like this.

QUESTION: Where can I find more information on the ongoing changes after that?

MR. EDSON: No, sorry, maybe I've given you the wrong impression. When I say it's an ongoing process, what we do every day is look at visa applications, and so we are always looking at how we do that and looking at U.S. border security and trying to make sure that we're doing it the best way for the security of the country and for the traveling public, sort of making sure that that all works out. And so there will always be incremental changes, and your people on the ground who are applying for visas might notice something that they think is a change, and perhaps it is, but in terms of global worldwide changes, there's nothing else for August 1st.

MR. DENIG: Just to keep track of various changes that occur, the best places to look are either the Department of State website or the local embassy website. Every embassy tries to keep its website updated with information on changes in visa and other consular procedures.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Sabeth Ramirez from Voice of America.

We do broadcasts to Cuba and we get a lot of reports that visas are taking much longer than ever for Cubans wanting to come up. Is this a new policy or can you foresee any change in policy in the near future?

MR. EDSON: It's hard to give you a categorical answer and say that this is the reason for everything in Cuba. And one of the things involved is additional scrutiny of the visa applications due to some other changes in the law. But now we're not new. This has been going on since May, 2002 -- congressionally mandated changes in the clearance procedures.

As I suggested before, it's not like the procedure, the requirement, may be set in stone. How we undertake it is something that we are working with to try to make sure that our resources are matched in the best way possible against national security needs and the needs of the traveling public so that we work these things out.

So I foresee that there probably will be changes over time to make the process more efficient, but nothing dramatic that's on the rolls right now that I'm aware of for Cuba.

MR. DENIG: Let's go to the gentleman in the way back.

QUESTION: Choi, working for South Korean television MBC.

The State Department announced a couple of weeks ago in terms of visa interview exemption and of each country, especially outside the ages from 15 to 60, but South Korean U.S. Embassy announced week ago as the interview exemption will be the falling to those not in the ages 16 through 55. Then do you think it is some kind of the favor to South Koreans or does U.S. Embassy to Seoul have such a -- the wide leeway to be rid of the visa interview?

And second question is few South Korean students coming to this country to start religious studies, so I mean, they apply -- they applying for priesthoods. And then yesterday this one report that about 600 institutions did not meet the deadline for (inaudible) which was that (inaudible) that the Homeland Security. So students -- who is actually legitimate visa holder, but the actual institution the students apply for does not meet the deadline for (inaudible) then how long does it need to be waited there for it to be checked that visa?

MR. EDSON: Again, going backwards, because this is easier: At the airport, what the Department of Homeland Security does with them -- I know that there have been press reports that they are aware of these gaps in the SEVIS registration or are making accommodation, but what they actually do at the port of entry with the students is not something I could comment on. I have no idea how long it would take.

For the first question, to start with, with our new policy, our posts overseas do not have the discretion to change the rules for a broad class of people. Any changes made for a whole class of people need to be made or approved by Washington, by the Deputy Assistant Secretary directly.

So at the end of your question you had suggested that maybe our colleagues in Seoul had that kind of discretion, and they don't across the board.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. EDSON: I know. I wasn't aware of the age. Are you --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. EDSON: Seoul is an unusual case because it processes the most nonimmigrant visas of any of our posts overseas. And although these changes and interview requirements actually will probably be relatively uncumbersome to most places, in Seoul it could be an issue for management. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State [for Consular Affairs] did approve some special exemptions to the interview requirement for Korean applications in Seoul to help manage this transition, but I'm not aware of the details of them.

MR. DENIG: Okay, let's come up front to Andrei again in the second row, and then we'll come up to the first row again.

QUESTION: Andrei Sitov again, two questions.

The group visas, be that for cruise, like ship cruise or aircraft cruise, or sometimes I guess the tourists came in groups and had a sort of a manifesto, a group visa -- what happens to those?

And secondly, the "respect visa." Now, they -- you say that when -- since 2004 and you will have the biometrics, including the fingerprints. For some people, for some VIPs, I guess, it would be a breach of respect to give their fingerprints. So how high level officials must apply to be waived for that?

MR. EDSON: Okay. In terms of the first question about group visas, we actually have a group visa, in this instance, the manifest is visaed rather than the individual passport of a traveler. That exists today only for a crew list on an oceangoing vessel. We do not have such things for tourist groups or for airlines. Tourists and airlines all require individual passports. What we call a crew list visa against the manifest of a vessel is under review at this time. There may be changes, maybe not, but that's under review.

The second question is serious. You point out one of the many sort of complications we'll have to wrestle with, we'll have to deal with, in order to implement the biometric requirements. There haven't been final decisions made. When they are made, it won't be a decision that's made only by the Department of State; it would have to be a decision by a number of agencies in the U.S. Government. But the decision hasn't been made yet.

QUESTION: Going back to India, how do you (inaudible) this, the 27 countries that they have to be (inaudible) Visa Waiver countries, I mean, and where is India in the future as far as Visa Waiver countries concerned?

And second, if these personal interviews, like in the past we used to hear that there were some corruptions or agents were getting visas without even qualification and some good people were not getting visas, now you think it will be end of corruption as far as personal interviews are concerned, or fraud and cheatings?

MR. EDSON: The Visa Waiver Program is defined under U.S. law, and the requirements for participation in the program are in the law. It includes things like the overstay rate for travelers from a particular country, the refusal rate for visa applicants from a particular country. And when countries meet those requirements, then they are reviewed, and I believe -- I'm not sure where the authority rests any more since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. It used to be shared. But anyway, there's a protocol that's actually defined in the legislation.

Would that corruption end? You know, we'll do our best.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. EDSON: Yeah. Obviously, the visa is a precious document and it's worth something, and we have to make ongoing, continual efforts to look at our own management controls to make sure that the system is not abused. And we do what we can. And interviewing more people, hopefully, will have one consequence of making it more difficult to obtain a U.S. visa by malfeasance.

MR. DENIG: Let's go to New York for two questions. New York, your next question, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Kahraman Haliscelik from Show TV and Sky Turk of Turkey.

We know that there are a lot of applicants who get their visas from within the U.S. Let's say, I'm not sure about other visa types, but on certain of about the situation of some of my colleagues. Let's say one of my colleagues in Los Angeles has his visa from within the U.S. has changed his visa while he was here to I-visa, and he or she was asked to cover protests in Venezuela, let's say. And if my colleague goes to Venezuela and wants to come back, I've heard that he or she has to go back to his or her country to get visa again to the U.S., instead of getting it from where he or she is.

I was wondering if we could get some clarification on that. Thank you.

MR. EDSON: Okay. I think I can only touch generally on your question because I believe that you're speaking again to that difference between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State. If the individual is here and has had their legal status in the United States adjusted by the Department of Homeland Security, they won't, in fact, have a visa in their passport in the new status and therefore would have to get a visa if they travel outside of the United States before they could return to the United States.

During a temporary stay in a country like Venezuela, for example, in your example, that would probably be difficult, might be difficult. It depends on the country. And they might find it easier to go back to their country of nationality or normal residence abroad in order to get the visa.

QUESTION: My name is Deepak Arora from National Herald, New Delhi, India.

In the light of the biometric changes being brought in the past -- in the visas from October 26, 2004, what happens to the status of the visas which have been issued beyond 2004? Like, normally, visas are issued for five or ten years, you know. So could you please clarify this?

Thank you.

MR. EDSON: Yeah, the fine print will have to be dealt with later. But the law, the legal requirement, is that we issue visas with the biometric indicator after October 26th, 2004. The law doesn't speak to the existing visas.

QUESTION: In your remarks, you mentioned the number of the personnel, I think, 39 people in this fiscal year and 80 people in the next year. I mean, all over the world?

MR. EDSON: Yes.

QUESTION: Or this is in charge of regional something, I mean?

MR. EDSON: It's the number of new adjudicating consular officer positions that we're adding.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) process?

MR. EDSON: Correct.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Any final questions, either here or elsewhere?

(No response.)

MR. DENIG: All right. Then I thank Mr. Edson very much. Thank you very much. And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, too.

Let me make one more comment, please: These issues dealing with visas and the whole consular process that we've been talking about will continue to be a very big story and we know that you are providing a very valuable service to your listeners and readers, so please, if there is anything that's unclear or you have any further questions, feel free to call us here at the Foreign Press Center. We'll work with the Consular Affairs Bureau to get you a good answer. And please also encourage your readers and your viewers to check both the embassy website in your country and the website that Tony mentioned, www.travel.state.gov, or the website www.usavisa.gov They should provide you with the latest updates.

Thank you very much.

(end transcript)