Government Widens Efforts to Scrutinize Foreign Visitors
A new regulation issued by the State Department on July 7 requires a face-to-face interview with a consular officer for approximately 90 percent of all visa applicants. This includes mandatory interviews for all temporary visitors, students, and workers between the ages of 16 and 60. No additional resources will be provided to State Department staff for these interviews.
Exceptions are granted on a case-by-case basis and are restricted, primarily, to diplomats, foreign officials, and applicants who seek re-issuance within 12 months of the expiration of their current visa. This regulation does not apply to the citizens of Canada and 27 mainly European countries who participate in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Based on FY 2002 admissions, of the approximately 28 million visitors the U.S. admits annually, only 47 percent are citizens of countries required to obtain a visa before entering the country. Therefore, it can be estimated that approximately 13 million visitors a year will be affected by this change. Many businesses, universities, and research institutes have expressed concerns that mandatory interviews will further strain consular staff and ultimately create a large backlog, significantly delaying visa issuance abroad and thereby jeopardizing vital U.S. economic and educational interests.
Free trade agreements slated to be signed by the United States with Chile and Singapore this year contain provisions that guarantee professionals from the U.S. unlimited entry into the other signatories' territory, while 1,400 Chilean and 5,400 Singaporean professionals will be able to enter the U.S. each year. Under the provisions, which are aimed at facilitating trade in services, Chilean and Singaporean professionals seeking entry to the U.S. will be granted H-1B1 visas that will count toward the overall H-1B visa cap, which currently stands at 195,000 per year (the cap will revert to 65,000 on October 1, 2003 pending new legislation authorizing a different visa ceiling—see November 2002 Spotlight for more information). Under current legislation, this temporary visa can be renewed indefinitely; however, citizenship or permanent residency cannot be obtained. Some members of Congress oppose the provisions for temporary work visas, citing high unemployment rates among professionals in the United States. Others support the provisions, asserting that the mobility of professionals is an important aspect of competitive markets, while at the same time pointing out that the U.S. has authority to deny temporary entry under certain conditions designed to protect the interests of U.S. workers.
A government program designed to monitor all new and continuing foreign students enrolled in U.S. schools and universities became fully operational on August 1. Under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), certified schools are required to enter student information electronically within 30 days of their registration on campus, which can then be updated by schools and accessed by government officials. This information includes visa status and type, biographical information, place of residence, and classes taken. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in anticipation of delays and errors caused by schools yet to be SEVIS-certified, has announced the creation of a round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week command center to coordinate with schools and immigration inspectors at U.S. ports-of-entry to ensure the entry of law-abiding foreign students.
The SEVIS database was mandated, under the Patriot Act, to be fully implemented by January 1, 2003, in part because three of the 19 September 11 hijackers received student visas. Delays and errors in the implementation of the program have prompted many, including members of Congress, to question what they regard as excessively tight deadlines. Many policy makers and academics fear that flawed implementation could ultimately prove damaging to national security interests and further delay and restrict open participation in the U.S. educational system. Proponents of the program assert that unexpected problems and delays are inherent to any program of this type. In FY 2002, there were over one million foreign scholars and students in the U.S., accounting for approximately four percent of all temporary admissions – a seven percent decline from FY 2001. (See Policy Beat February 2003 for more information).
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge in July extended the temporary protected status (TPS) designation of foreign nationals from Montserrat, El Salvador, and Somalia. The more than 300 people from Montserrat and the approximately 350 Somalians (or aliens having no nationality who last resided in Somalia) who have TPS have been granted a 12-month extension, until August 27, 2004 and September 17, 2004, respectively. The approximately 29,000 Salvadorans affected by this change received an 18-month extension that is now set to expire March 9, 2005. TPS grants employment authorization and temporary protection from deportation to foreign nationals from countries undergoing and recovering from environmental disasters, civil unrest, or other extraordinary conditions. Montserrat was wracked by volcanic eruptions in 1997, El Salvador faced a series of earthquakes in 2001, and Somalia has yet to emerge from years of civil strife. In each case, Ridge has determined that these countries cannot yet handle the return of their nationals currently residing in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on July 9 announced a new initiative, Operation Predator, to enhance law enforcement efforts against criminal aliens who exploit young people. The department's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will work with other agencies to arrest, detain, and eventually deport human traffickers, alien smugglers, and those criminal aliens convicted of sex offenses. According to ICE Assistant Secretary Michael Garcia, "We have 50,000 criminal alien absconders, we are now prioritizing those with violent crimes, those sexual predators, and particularly those predators who prey on children." As part of Operation Predator, ICE is maintaining a Top 10 Most Wanted Criminal Aliens list. As of July 25, 228 foreigners wanted in connection with sex offenses had been apprehended. Immigration advocates have applauded efforts to protect America's children, but have also expressed concerns that some foreign nationals may be incorrectly apprehended and detained due to inaccurate databases.