Visas for Dollars Pilot Program Needs a Catchy Name, Just Don’t Call It Visa Express, Please

In mid-January, President Obama announced new efforts to increase travel and tourism to the United States. The WH announcement pointed to this as “part of a comprehensive effort to spur job creation.” Note the huge emphasis on numbers:

The number of travelers from emerging economies with growing middle classes – such as China, Brazil, and India – is projected to grow by 135%, 274%, and 50% respectively by 2016 when compared to 2010.  Nationals from these three countries contributed approximately $15 billion dollars and thousands of jobs to the U.S. economy in 2010.  In addition, Chinese and Brazilian tourists currently spend more than $6,000 and $5,000 respectively each, per trip, according to the Department of Commerce. […] In the 2011 fiscal year, consular officers adjudicated more than a million visa applications in China and more than 800,000 in Brazil, representing 34 % growth in China and 42% growth in Brazil. Improving visa processing capacity for China and Brazil is particularly important because of this growth.

The WH has charged the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security with the following:

  • Increasing non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40% in 2012.
  • Ensuring that 80% of non-immigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receipt of application.
  • Increasing efforts to expand the Visa Waiver Program and travel by nationals eligible to participate in the Visa Waiver Program, and expanding reciprocal trusted travel programs for expedited travel (such as the Global Entry program).

A preview of this efforts actually happened back in November when the State Dept trotted out its Managing Director for Visa Services Ed Ramotowski and two Minister Counselors for Consular Affairs, Chuck Bennett from US Embassy Beijing and Don Jacobson from US Embassy Brasilia to talk about growing visa demands in China and Brazil. What about India? More on that later.

From Ed Ramotowshi | State/CA/Visas

  • [C]onsular officers issued more than 7.5 million visas around the world’ represents a 17 percent increase over Fiscal Year 2010.
  • Since 2005, visa issuances went up by 42 percent
  • Approximately 65 percent of foreign travelers who come to this country don’t need visas. They come from Canada and countries in the Visa Waiver Program.
  • Goal is to expand capacity to adjudicate more than 2.2 million visas in China and 1.8 million visas in Brazil by 2013.

From Chuck Bennett | US Embassy Beijing 

  • US Mission China  adjudicated more than one million U.S. visas for Chinese applicants during Fiscal Year 2011; represents a 34 percent increase over last year
  • Issue visas to nearly 90 percent of all Chinese applicants who apply
  • Have added temporary staff and extended work hours
  • Over the next year, will add 50 more positions in China
  • In the process of adding 22 additional visa interview windows in Guangzhou, 20 new windows in Shanghai, 8 new windows in Chengdu, and 8 new windows in Beijing.

From Don Jacobson | US Embassy Brasilia

  • US Mission Brazil adjudicated more than 820,000 visas in the fiscal year that just ended, an increase of more than 42 percent over the previous year.
  • Goal in Brazil is to have the capacity to adjudicate more than 1.8 million visas by 2013
  • Since 2005, consular officer staffing in Brazil has doubled; will double again this year
  • In October alone, adjudicated more than 90,000 visas in Brazil, 67 percent more than October of last year (2010)
  • Adding more than 50 more consular officer positions over the coming year; estimates that one officer can process about 20,000 applications a year

There are currently about 50 officers in US Mission Brazil, so this increase would be a 100% bump in staffing.  US Mission China currently has about 100 officers with 50 more expected.  So where are these visa officers going to come from?

Here is what Mr. Bennett said:

Some of these people – many of these people are just new Foreign Service officers. And in the Foreign Service, often the first two tours in an officer’s career are spent doing consular work. We also have a new program where we’re bringing on, what we are calling, limited, non-career appointees. That is, people who are already trained in Mandarin Chinese and in Portuguese for Brazil, and these folks are coming in basically on one-year contracts, which are renewable for up to five years. They are going through all the same training that a Foreign Service officer would go through and some additional training. The advantage is that they already have language skills. And then based upon their performance, their contract can be renewed up to five years.

Mr. Ramotowski added:

One of our challenges in meeting demand both in Brazil and China is just we don’t have enough Chinese and Portuguese speakers coming in at the entry level who already have those languages. So this program is going to help us get more people on the ground quickly.

Okay, so now what about India which was mentioned by the President but was not invited to the preview party? According to Hindustantimes and other local papers, James Herman, Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs had a press release following President Obama’s announcement touting a streamlined visa process plus the following US Mission India visa figures:

  • Over the last five years US Mission India increased staffing by over sixty percent; opened two new consulates in Hyderabad (in 2009) and Mumbai (in 2011).
  • Indians represent the highest volume of work visa travelers to the US; and the second highest number of foreign students in the United States
  • 2011 was a record year for H1B work visas—over 68,000 processed by Consular Team India alone
  • US Mission India processed close to 700,000 visa applications in 2011

We went looking for Mr. Herman’s official statement at the US Embassy Delhi website but it’s not available there or in the State Department’s website. We emailed the embassy inquiring where are these numbers cited by local reports but never got any response. Official statement released but not here or there or anywhere, must have been a new kind of secret presser.

Meanwhile the State Department’s Fact Sheet notes that the pilot program will streamline visa processing for certain low-risk applicants, such as individuals renewing expired visas, or some categories of younger or older first-time applicants. The expectation is that this will “benefit tens of thousands of applicants in Brazil and China; saving them time and money, and encouraging them to choose to visit the United States again.”  And spend money here, of course.  Perhaps anticipating a possible blow-back, a reminder from Visa Express post 9/11, the Fact Sheet adds this:  “…. given that national security remains this Administration’s highest priority, individuals identified as higher-risk will remain subject to interviews – in addition to the full screening and review all visa applicants receive.”

Even if all applicants are interviewed, that’s not the most important challenge. Thomas Furey, the Consul General at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia from 2000-2001 was once quoted saying that the expectations for the visa interview are unrealistic because you are asking the Consular Officer to “predict the future.”  There is something to that.  The underwear bomber reportedly had a visa issued in 2004 and then again in 2008 prior to his attempted attack in 2009.  Had the attack succeeded, the supervisory Consular Officer who overturned the 2004 application and the Consular Officer who issued the visa in 2008 would have been dragged through live coals for not foreseeing the future. The shoe bomber, of course, came from a visa waiver country, and did not even need an interview.

Domani Spero