Trump EO Also Suspends Visa Interview Waivers – Expect Long Visa Wait Times, Again

Posted: 10:28 am  PT
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In 2012, then President Obama issued an Executive Order on Establishing Visa and Foreign Visitor Processing Goals and the Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness, which among other things, “ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within 3 weeks of receipt of application, recognizing that resource and security considerations and the need to ensure provision of consular services to U.S. citizens may dictate specific exceptions”.  The Obama EO directed a plan that “should also identify other appropriate measures that will enhance and expedite travel to and arrival in the United States by foreign nationals, consistent with national security requirements.” In 2012, an Interview Waiver Pilot Program (IWPP) was introduced for for low-risk visa applicants. It became was made permanent in 2014, and became the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP).

According to congressional testimonies, there are 222 visa-issuing embassies and consulates where “highly-trained corps of consular officers and support staff process millions of visa applications each year, facilitating legitimate travel while protecting our borders.”  In FY2015, overseas posts issued over 10.8 million nonimmigrant visas. That number is only a partial picture of the workload as it does not include visa refusals, a number that is significantly higher than visa issuances.

Section 8 of President Trump’s Executive Order: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States refers to the immediate suspension of visa interview waivers specifically, the VIWP, and imposes a requirement that all nonimmigrant visa applicants, with exceptions, undergo in-person interviews.

Sec . 8 . Visa Interview Security

(a) The Secretary of State shall immediately suspend the Visa Interview Waiver Program and ensure compliance with section 222 of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1222, which requires that all individuals seeking a nonimmigrant visa undergo an in-person interview, subject to specific statutory exceptions.

(b)  To the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, the Secretary of State shall immediately expand the Consular Fellows Program, including by substantially increasing the number of Fellows, lengthening or making permanent the period of service, and making language training at the Foreign Service Institute available to Fellows for assignment to posts outside of their area of core linguistic ability, to ensure that non-immigrant visa-interview wait times are not unduly affected.

We understand that the current Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP) was “carefully crafted”, and rolled out in consultation with the Congress. It was designed not/not to go back to pre-911 situation but to facilitate travel in cases of no discernable risk.

Here is what the Consular Affairs bureau told Congress:

Since 9/11, a risk-based approach grounded on greater and more effective domestic and international information sharing has become a key principle of visa processing policy.  This approach enables the United States to channel more resources toward the prevention of high-risk travel while simultaneously increasing the number of legitimate visitors arriving by land, air, and sea.  The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prescreening process for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers, international information sharing arrangements, Global Entry, which expedites the movement of low-risk, frequent travelers who proceed directly to automated kiosks upon arrival in the United States, and interagency counterterrorism and eligibility checks are examples of how U.S. agencies can use information collected from visitors and/or governments in advance of travel to accomplish complimentary and mutually re-enforcing goals of preventing terrorists and serious criminals from traveling to the United States while facilitating the entry of legitimate visitors.

We asked the State Department about the suspension of the VIWP and its impact on visa operations. We were interested in the number of applicants who used the Visa Interview Visa Program for the last fiscal year.  In trying to get a sense of the impact of the new EO on visa operations, we also were interested on number of consular officers in visa sections worldwide.

Our question is in general staffing terms not specific to any posts, nonetheless, a State Department official on background declined to discuss staffing levels or the number of officers working at any embassy or consulate.  However, the SDO  did provided the following information:

The Executive Order suspends previously authorized portions of the Interview Waiver Program. The Interview Waiver Program will continue for certain diplomatic and official visa applicants from foreign governments and international organizations (categories: A-1, A-2, G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, NATO-1 through -6, C-2 and C-3) applicants under the age of 14, or over the age of 79; and applicants who previously held a visa in the same category that expired less than 12 months prior to the new application. As always, a consular officer must require that any applicant appear for an in-person interview in any situation where information provided on the application or during the screening process indicates any reason for further questioning. All visa applications, including those cases above, for which the visa interview is waived, are subject to the same rigorous security screening.

Previously, applicants renewing their visas in the same category within 48 months of expiration were eligible for their interview to be waived, as were first-time Brazilian and Argentine applicants ages 14-15 and 66-79.

We don’t know what is the current number but in 2013, Brazilian visitors contributed $10.5 billion to the U.S. economy, a 13 percent increase from the prior year.

Background of the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP)

In January 2012, the Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated the two-year Interview Waiver Pilot Program (IWPP) to streamline processing for low-risk visa applicants.  The worldwide pilot program allows consular officers to waive in-person interviews for certain nonimmigrant visa applicants who were previously interviewed and thoroughly screened in conjunction with a prior visa application, and who are renewing a previous visa within four years of its expiration.  The pilot program also allows consular officers to waive interviews for qualified Brazilian applicants falling into specific age ranges, even when applying for visas for the first time.

All IWPP applications are thoroughly reviewed by a commissioned consular officer, with the applicant’s fingerprints, photograph, and biodata undergoing extensive database checks.  Consular officers have been directed to require an interview for any applicant who might otherwise qualify for the IWPP, if the application is not immediately approvable upon paper review, including if database checks reveal potential grounds of inadmissibility or other possible concerns.  State concluded an August 2013 validation study of the IWPP, which showed that B1/B2 visa issuances under the IWPP present no greater risk of overstay than interview-based B1/B2 visa issuances.

In 2013, State/CA’s congressional testimony indicates that “more than 90 percent of applicants worldwide were interviewed within three weeks of submitting their applications.”  This includes key markets such as China where consular officers were able to keep interview wait times to an average of five days while managing an average annual workload increase of 23 percent over the past three years.  In Brazil, consular officers were able to bring down wait times by 98 percent, from a high of 140 days in São Paulo, to just two days in September 2013, while also managing an eleven percent jump in annual workload between 2011 and 2013. These results were partially attributed to the VIWP:

The Department’s success is partially attributable to the introduction of secure, streamlined processes such as the Interview Waiver Pilot Program (IWPP), which allows consular officers to waive in-person interviews for certain nonimmigrant visa applicants who are renewing their visas, and whose biometric data we have on file.  IWPP is operational at more than 90 visa processing posts in more than 50 countries, and consular officers have already waived interviews for more than 500,000 of these low-risk visa applicants.  The pilot has been particularly successful in China, where it constitutes 30 percent of Mission China’s visa renewal workload.  Of course, these applicants are subject to all of the security checks conducted for any interviewed applicant.  State also concluded an August 2013 validation study of the IWPP, which showed that B1/B2 visa issuances under the IWPP present no greater risk of overstay than interview-based B1/B2 visa issuances.

One of the most effective ways we have to improve the efficiency of visa operations is to eliminate in-person interviews for low-risk travelers, while retaining all of the security checks that apply to every visa applicant.  Although the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires our consular officers to interview in-person all visa applicants aged 14 through 79, it also provides limited authority to waive interviews, including authority to waive for diplomatic and official applicants from foreign governments and for some repeat applicants.  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.

Since the VIWP is available in China and India, and many other countries with high visa demand, and includes visitor/business (B1-B2) visas, student (F) visas, and temporary worker’s (H1-B) visas, the workload impact on consular sections will be significant.  As more applicants require interviews, more interview windows will be needed, more consular officers will be needed, and larger facilities would become necessary.

By shutting down the IVWP, the Trump EO immediately expands the number of applicants that require in-person interviews. Section 8 (b) of the Trump EO also “immediately expand” the Consular Fellows Program, while a separate EO imposed a federal hiring freeze. Even if hiring is allowed under the Consular Fellows program, training new limited noncareer employees cannot occur overnight.

According to CA official’s congressional testimony, in 2014, 75 million international visitors traveled to the United States, a seven percent increase over 2013; they spent over $220 billion.  “Tourism is America’s largest services export and one that can’t be outsourced.” See current key numbers on US tourism in infographic below.

In FY 2014, Consular Affairs also generated $3.6 billion in revenue, which supports all consular operations in the Department and provides border security-related funding to some interagency partners. The CA bureau is probably the only fully fee-funded operation in the State Department.  It collects and retains fees for certain visa and passport services pursuant to specific statutory authority.  According to congressional testimony, the current fee statutes allow the bureau to retain approximately 80 percent of the fees it collects, with the balance going to the Treasury, which then help fund 12 other arms of the USG supporting border protection/national security.

 

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