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U.S. Department of State
Daily Press Briefing
Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman
Washington, DC
June 30, 2004

[ ... ]

QUESTION: A question about visas. Senator John Kyl wrote an op-ed in today's Washington Post that was quite critical of visa reform efforts so far in the wake of 9/11. He says it's still far too easy for a terrorist to get a visa to enter the United States. I'm wondering what your reaction to that is.

MR. ERELI: There were two editorials, actually, in The Washington Post today: one by Senator Kyl that said it's too easy to get a visa; and another by an educator who said it was too hard to get a visa and it was hurting our national interests by keeping students and scientists out of the country.

And I think the juxtaposition of these opinion pieces points to an issue that we've been trying to manage since September 11th, and that issue is, as Secretary Powell has described it, striking the right balance between secure borders and open doors.

What I would say to the pieces is that the Department of State has been working diligently and very seriously to, on the one hand, tighten the visa -- tighten the security of the visa process so that the wrong people don't get through, and at the same time, to address the needs of academic, scientific and business communities regarding the ability and facility for legitimate travelers to obtain visas and to come to the United States.

I think if you look at all that we've accomplished since September 11th, you'll see that we've made enormous strides in tightening up the system, as well as -- tightening up the system for those who pose a threat, as well as adapting our procedures to facilitate those who bring something to the United States and bring something to our economy.

Let me just give you a couple of examples. On -- in terms of tightening up the system and on the security side, we've, since September 11th, we've doubled the number of records that is in the Consular Lookout and Support Systems, or CLASS, we added 8 million records from the FBI, and we added almost 50,000 through the TIPOFF system. So, as a result, we've got a state-of-the-art, expanded, integrated database against which to check the names of these applicants.

We have significantly, I think, increased the need for personal interviews, and that was one of the big criticisms in the article. We have -- so that personal appearances for nonimmigrant visas is now much more standard practice. Limits, or waivers, for personal appearances has been greatly reduced. We've established written standards for interviews to achieve consistency. And, importantly, we've implemented mandatory interagency security review requirements for certain applicants.

Another thing that was criticized was the lack of training. We've expanded training. We've increased -- we've got -- we used to have a 26-day course for consular officers before going out to the field. Now we've got a -- we've added five days to that course, to include advanced interviewing techniques. We've also created new courses in advanced name-checking techniques for already experienced consular officers.

Finally, in the area of security, and something we, I think, take great pride in and I think shows the scope and impact of what we're doing, the majority of our posts overseas are ready, and by October, 2004, all of them will have -- will be able to collect digital finger scans from visa applicants. And the collection of this information, or what's called the biometric visa program, will allow us to check visa applicants against the Department of Homeland Security's database. It will provide Homeland Security officers at ports of entry means to verify whether the person traveling is indeed the person who issued the visa.

So, on the security side, we've done a lot. And I think a lot of what is in that -- in one of the editorials is rebutted by the facts of what we've done. On the other side of the coin, we've done a lot to try to make it -- try to make it, I think -- try to provide a more welcome, a welcoming environment and welcoming procedure for those people who come here.

We've tried to improve our technology, our communications and our process to make visa screening thorough and efficient. To go to some of the points raised in the article, for those people who have to get interagency reviews, 80 percent of them take less than 30 days. And in last fiscal year, only 2.2 percent of the applicants, or 212,000 people, had to go through an interagency security review.

Also, in terms of overall numbers, in the first five calendar months of 2004, visa applications increased by 12.6 percent, issuances increased by 16.1 percent, compared to the same period, and interestingly, we've also seen an increase in student visas.

So -- long answer, but only because -- (laughter) -- but only because it's a serious issue, and one that, frankly, we think is a very emotional one for people on both sides of the issue, those that want to protect America, but those that want to make the best of America open to others. And we share that -- we share that -- those feelings and we devote a lot of energy to trying to strike the balance.


QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? Senator Kyl said that in -- (laughter) --

MR. ERELI: Sure.


QUESTION: The Senator -- you mentioned 26 days of training. Senator Kyl, in his commentary, said that he put the figure at less than two days for many consular officers, as far as screening applicants. Can you explain what this --

MR. ERELI: For screening -- well, there is -- any person in the U.S. Foreign Service who is to have a consular commission, which provides them the authority to perform consular duties, has to go through the 26-day course. Now that course is, I think, 30 days, 31 days, with this added stuff. So there is -- I couldn't tell you how much of that course deals with visa interviewing techniques. Maybe it's two days, maybe not.

But the point I wanted to make, and I made earlier, was that we have expanded the part of the course that deals with interviewing techniques, because we recognize that this is a critical part of the system, or a critical link or stage in the system, and that we want to make sure that our consular officers know what questions to ask and are able to detect evasion or, you know, other efforts on the part of the interviewee that would set off alarm bells. It's a subtle art. It's not something that, you know, you can have an objective questionnaire and come out with the right answer all the time, so that -- we want to make sure that our consular officers are aware of the importance of the issue, deal with it seriously and have the skills necessary to produce the right results.


QUESTION: New subject?

QUESTION: Same subject.

MR. ERELI: Sure.

QUESTION: Did you have any answer for the Eastern European countries, and especially those who joined the NATO recently, that they not getting a favorable, also, treatment when it comes to issuing visa for their citizens?

MR. ERELI: I wouldn't say -- it's not a question of favorable treatment or unfavorable treatment. It's a question of applying the law and acting consistent with the legislation passed by Congress. And we apply the law and we apply the regulations fairly and equally and equitably across the board. Doesn't matter where you're from; the law's the law.

QUESTION: There was an article also about the Polish Prime Minister, that he made a complaint to President Bush about this subject, concerning the visas for the Polish citizens. So is there any answer to that article, that just addressed the problem of the Polish people but did not give an answer, actually, that they got from President Bush about it?

MR. ERELI: I'm not familiar with the article. What I would tell you is that we take our obligations under the law seriously, we follow the requirements of the law meticulously, and we are both sensitive to and understanding of concerns of our partners, that we do everything possible to make their ability to travel to the United States and visit in the United States easy and safe. And that's what guides our actions.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: New subject?

[ ... ]

[ End ]

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