Consular Affairs Bureau Seeks to Expand Visa Waiver and Interview Waiver Programs

— Domani Spero
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The State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs retired last April (see Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs to Retire Effective April 3).  As far as we know, no successor has been nominated to date.  Pardon me? You want ……..? And you want Overseas Citizens Services DAS Jim Pettit?  Excuse me, Mr. Pettit was already nominated as Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova.  Who else?  You want ……. ? Well, maybe State should have a list of nominees and have all CA employees vote for their next boss per the bureau’s Leadership Tenets. Because wouldn’t that be a screamingly fantastic experiment?

In any case, CA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Michele Bond has been the Acting A/S since April 2014.  This past June, at a hearing at the Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Competitiveness and Innovation on  The State of U.S. Travel and Tourism Industry, Ms. Bond discussed how the bureau is meeting increasing demand for visas worldwide, particularly in  Brazil, India, Mexico and China (see prepared statement). Stressing that the State Department’s  “top priority in visa adjudication is always national security,” the prepared statement provides a look at where the bureau is seeking to expand.   Specifically, it seeks legislative authority to expand the Interview Waiver Program and wanted to see an expanded  Visa Waiver Program to include additional countries to the 37 current participants.  The  Interview Waiver Program (visa applications without personal appearances) is potentially controversial given its history, and probably the reason the bureau is seeking legislative authority from Congress.

Below are excerpts from the prepared statement:

Consular Adjudicators

In 2013, Brazilian visitors contributed $10.5 billion to the U.S. economy, a 13 percent increase from the prior year.  During the same period, Chinese visitors contributed $9.8 billion, an 11 percent increase from the prior year, or $5,400 per visitor.  To address this important opportunity to contribute to our country’s economy, 167 officers perform consular work in Mission China.  Consular Affairs created over 50 new officer positions in China in fiscal year 2012 alone.  In the same year, we increased consular staffing in Mission Brazil by 40 percent within six months, and eventually increased staffing by more than 100 percent.  We met the President’s Executive Order target of 40 percent capacity increase in Brazil in June 2012 and in China in November 2012, both ahead of schedule.
[…]

In 2011, we realized our traditional hiring mechanisms wouldn’t allow us to deploy officers quickly enough to meet exploding visa demand in Brazil and China. We weren’t recruiting enough Portuguese- and Mandarin-speaking officers and could not wait for new entry-level officers to learn these essential languages.  In response, the Department created a rapid hiring pilot program to ramp up staffing at critical needs posts.  These adjudicators met a high bar for qualifications and underwent a rigorous screening process to assess their skills and background for these positions.  The first class of these adjudicators, appointed for one-year periods and limited to a maximum of five consecutive years, began in January 2012.  That year, we brought on a total of 24 Mandarin-speakers and 19 Portuguese-speakers, all of whom arrived at posts by mid-July.  In fiscal year 2013, we expanded the program to recruit Spanish-speakers.  To date, we have hired and deployed 59 adjudicators under this program to China, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, representing an added capacity of 900,000 visa adjudications per year.

Interview Waiver Program

We are utilizing technology and advanced fraud detection techniques to help us expand the pool of applicants for whom interviews can be waived under the Interview Waiver Program.  This allows us to focus resources on higher-risk visa applicants while facilitating travel for low-risk applicants.

We are working with our colleagues across the government to expand this successful program, which became permanent in January 2014.  In fiscal year 2013, we waived over 380,000 interviews, and a recent study showed that tourist and business visitor visa holders whose interviews were waived, all of whom were subject to the full scope of security checks, posed no greater risk for an overstay than those who were interviewed.  We are interested in explicit legislative authority to supplement the existing Interview Waiver Program by adding additional low-risk applicant groups such as citizens of Visa Waiver Program members applying for other types of visas such as student or work visas; continuing students moving to a higher level of education; non-U.S. citizen Global Entry and NEXUS trusted traveler program members; and holders of visas in other categories, such as students and workers, who wish to travel for tourism or business.  The Department is interested in working with Congress on legislation specifically authorizing the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to enhance our interview waiver programs.

Visa Waiver Program

[W]e are working with our U.S. government colleagues to expand the Visa Waiver Program, consistent with U.S. law, as was recently done with the addition of Chile to the program earlier this year.  With this designation, Chile now joins 37 other participants and is currently the only participant from Latin America.  The Department supports the proposed amendments contained in the Senate-passed Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, because we believe they would restructure the Visa Waiver Program in a manner that would strengthen law enforcement cooperation, while maintaining the program’s robust counterterrorism and criminal information sharing initiatives and promoting commerce and tourism in the United States.

No to Premium Visa Processing

However, we do not recommend offering premium visa processing.  We believe many visa applicants would be willing to pay any “premium processing fee” in the false belief that payment of a higher fee will ensure visa issuance, thus making any such program less efficient and compromising the integrity of the visa process.  The best approach to achieve greater efficiencies is the continued prioritization of student, medical, and urgent business travel applications, which is already in effect at consular posts worldwide.  We will also pursue increased visa validity where reciprocal agreement can be obtained with interagency support.

The full statement is available here.

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One response

  1. State is, post by post, doing what others have urged for years – giving the visa function to INS. (Yes, nowadays it is DHS CBP, but the concept is the same.)
    State cannot ever adequately staff the visa function with career officers, and has tried one incarnation after another of “almost but not quite officer” adjudicators.
    DHS tried to stanch the Visa Waiver security holes with ESTA and other screening technologies, and now State is backing out of the NIV business as fast as it can.
    Former Conoff.