Last month's hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform found
general agreement that visa application processing has steadily improved
since the initial implementation of post-9/11 procedures, but recognition
that additional improvements are still needed. As is true with many
such issues, inadequate funding is a major factor contributing to the
problems that visitors face in obtaining a visa.
Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) and Ranking Minority Member Henry
Waxman (D-CA) spoke of the importance of protecting national security.
Both of them criticized, however, lengthy waits that some visa applicants
have for a mandatory face-to-face interview with State Department consular
State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services Tony Edson
testified that more than seven million visa applications are adjudicated
annually. Almost all applications require a personal interview, which
one witness testified can last as little as five minutes. Once interviewed,
97% of applicants who are found to be qualified receive their visa within
two days. The State Department has streamlined screening procedures
for applicants requiring a more stringent review. State has also significantly
increased its staffing.
A major problem identified by Jess Ford, Director for International
Affairs and Trade of the Government Accountability Office, are delays
in scheduling the personal interview. Ford testified that almost half
the visa-issuing posts reported maximum waiting times of thirty or more
days for at least one of the months between last September and this
February. This problem was especially acute in India and China. GAO
investigators found both a lack of staffing and office space to handle
ever-increasing demands in these countries.
Despite processing improvements, witnesses testified that there are
continuing difficulties in the visa issuing process. Yo-Yo Ma and Sandra
Gibson of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters described significant
delays and expenses that some performers encounter in obtaining visas.
Kevin Schofield of Microsoft Research told the committee "the
obstacles that face business visitors, students, and talented workers
seeking to travel to the United States pose a problem of serious and
damaging proportions. These obstacles are a direct threat to American
competitiveness." Schofield fears that "the world's best
and brightest students may ultimately decide that the difficulties of
studying in the United States outweigh the benefits." He cited
the current 163 day wait for a personal interview in Chennai, India
for a temporary visa to come to the United States.
Other witnesses from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and
U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered recommended changes in the process.
Schofield's testimony might have summarized best the current situation:
". . . in numerous consulates around the world, it takes weeks
or months to get a visa application appointment. We do not believe this
to be a function of unwillingness on the part of the State Department
or its consulates; we see signs that they are trying, within their ability,
to address these very serious issues. Rather, we believe this to be
the result of a grave insufficiency of resources devoted to a function
that is critical to our national interests."