Friday, September 09, 2005

Secure Borders, Open Doors

By William Fisher

As congress returns to Washington facing what promises to be a rancorous debate on how to protect U.S. borders, a leading immigration think-tank is charging that U.S. visa policies – a key tool in promoting national security – are in danger of compromising American economic competitiveness and foreign policy goals.

A new study by the Migration Policy Institute – “Secure Borders, Open Doors” – faults the government for lack of a strategic plan for the U.S. visa program, and “nebulous” coordination between the State Department (DOS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), leading to duplication and poor information sharing.

The report says one of the visa program’s “greatest challenges” will be “countering international perceptions that the United States has become more hostile to visitors. Losses to tourism and industry have been significant in recent years, with nonimmigrant visa applications dropping by 35 percent between 2001 and 2003, international enrollment in U.S. schools for 2003/2004 down for the first time in three decades, and the number of tourists visiting the United States plummeting by over 10 million people between 2000 and 2003. There are also reports of billions of dollars lost in foreign direct investment in the United States and contracts for U.S. exports”.

The report, written by Stephen Yale-Loehr, Demetrios Papademetriou and Betsy Cooper, also calls on Congress to require the establishment of a comprehensive interagency evaluation process to review incidents of admitting people who present security risks.

It says that while the DOS “is working to address delays caused by additional checks and mandatory interviews”, changes are still needed “to clarify the application process and make it more transparent; facilitate visa re-issuance from the United States; and waive interviews for travelers who have been issued visas recently.”

The report also recommends improving the quality of interviews through the use of a secondary-like inspection at consular posts to target possible security risks.

It asserts that a “major weakness” continues to be variable access to information through different agencies’ databases. “Improved intelligence-gathering, greater investments in staff expertise and training, and online access to all relevant information about applicants are essential.”

The report recommends, “An integrated national watch list that is constantly checked for quality together with a stronger communications system between agencies for security advisory opinions, are essential domestic security priorities.”

Since September 11, the report says, “the purpose of different visa classes and the process for getting a visa have remained the same, with the most frequent reason for denying a nonimmigrant application still being the person’s inability to prove that they do not intend to stay in the United States permanently”.

However, it adds, “Many administrative procedures have changed significantly, including a requirement for personal interviews with almost all visa applicants”. “The government has more closely scrutinized visa waiver countries, curtailed airline passengers’ ability to travel through the U.S. en route to other countries without visas, and established requirements for visa waiver countries to have machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers by October 1, 2005,” it says.

The authors find that the security check process has improved, but urge better use of biometrics. “The State Department, DHS and the FBI must agree on a truly compatible fingerprinting system and adopt standards that can be used both among U.S. agencies and in conjunction with the development of biometric passports from other countries.”

The impact of visa problems on higher education is a major concern. Ursula Oaks of the Department of Public Policy at the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), told IPS, “What we face today is not just a visa problem, it's an ‘access’ problem -- the myriad still-existing barriers to international students' ability to study here that, taken together, pose a serious challenge for our country.”

At a recent symposium to discuss the MPI report, similar concerns were also voiced by Dr. Debra W. Stewart, President of the Council of Graduate Schools. She called recent statistics on international student flows “a sobering reminder of the importance of US visa policy.”

Dr. Stewart said that last year international graduate applications declined 28% and another 5% this year. For the past three years, she said, first time international graduate student enrollment has declined. “With international enrollment in engineering approaching nearly half of the total and over 40% in the physical sciences, these declines raise serious questions about America’s potential to continue its position of thought leadership in these fields.”

She added her concern about the “unintended consequences of recent reform in the visa system,” noting that “inscrutable delays do occur in the system.”

In higher education, she said, “Global competition for talent is real….our competitors are not standing still.” Other countries, she suggested, are capitalizing on “the negative image of the US abroad by advertising their programs outside US embassies. Perhaps more significant are the major investments in graduate education being made worldwide”, particularly by the European Union, China and India.

U.S. consular staff, she said, “need more understanding of the American academic world that student applicants hope to enter”, adding, “There appears to be a lack of scientific expertise in the consular affairs offices.”

While noting recent improvements in the visa process, Dr. Stewart said, “Problems remain that are not likely to be solved by simply making the current system more efficient and seamless…It requires strategic thinking about the very purposes of visa policy -- its goals and desired outcomes.”

She added, “America’s national security, its intellectual security and its very capacity to compete, depend upon it.”

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