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Obama Announces Visa Process Improvements for Visitors to U.S.

By MacKenzie C. Babb | Staff Writer | 19 January 2012
President Obama speaking in front of American flag (AP Images)

President Obama says the executive order offers important steps to improve secure visa processing and will help promote the United States as a tourism destination.

Washington — President Obama says the departments of State and Homeland Security are working together to improve and speed up the visa process for foreign travelers to the United States.

He announced a new visa pilot program that will “simplify and speed up the non-immigrant visa process for certain applicants, including the ability to waive interviews for some very low-risk applicants” seeking to renew a visa, according to a January 19 White House statement.

Obama said that since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States has implemented “an intensive, multi-layered visa screening process, including multiple biographic and biometric checks, all supported by a sophisticated global information technology network.” The White House said the United States performs these checks on every visa applicant, without exception.

But under the initiative, select circumstances may allow qualified foreign visitors who were interviewed and thoroughly screened as part of a prior visa application to renew their visas without undergoing another interview.

“Eliminating interviews for these applicants will save them time and money and encourage them to choose the United States again as their tourism destination,” a White House fact sheet on the initiative said, adding that it will also free up resources to interview more first-time applicants. The program is also set to make visa processing more efficient for certain categories of low-risk applicants, such as younger or older first-time applicants.

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs agreed that streamlining the visa process for foreign visitors is important, and also emphasized that U.S. security remains the Obama administration’s highest priority.

“Every visa decision is a national security decision,” Jacobs said in a conference call January 19. That is why consular officers around the world will continue to exercise authority to interview any visa applicant as required for national security, in addition to the full screening and review all visa applicants receive, she said.

Obama announced the pilot program as part of a new executive order issued January 19, which emphasizes expediting the visa process for emerging markets such as China, Brazil and India. Visitors from these three countries contributed approximately $15 billion and thousands of jobs to the U.S. economy in 2010, and the number of travelers to the United States is expected to grow by 135 percent from China, 274 percent from Brazil and 50 percent from India by 2016, according to the White House. Expediting the visa process for visitors from these key markets is expected to add an increasingly significant boost to the U.S. economy as it continues to recover from recession.

The executive order charges the departments of State and Homeland Security with increasing nonimmigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent in 2012, following consular adjudication of more than 1 million visa applications from China and at least 800,000 from Brazil in fiscal year 2011. It also requires the departments to ensure that 80 percent of all nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of application.

Obama’s order calls as well for the two departments to increase efforts to expand the Visa Waiver Program, under which people can travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or fewer without obtaining a visa.

Thus far, 36 countries have met the strict law enforcement and document security standards required for program eligibility. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton most recently has requested that the Department of Homeland Security consider Taiwan for the Visa Waiver Program.

The executive order additionally requires the Commerce Department to establish a publicly available website with key information and statistics to help people understand U.S. visa processes. It also marks the appointment of 32 private sector business leaders to the department’s Travel and Tourism Board to advise Commerce Secretary John Bryson on issues such as visa policy, aviation security and improving the international travel entry experience.

According to the Commerce Department, international travel is the largest U.S. service-export industry, resulting in $134 billion in 2010 or roughly 24 percent of overall service exports. Obama has said enhancing the travel and tourism industry offers an important opportunity to create jobs and strengthen the U.S. economy.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)