Congress is currently reviewing H.R. 3039, the "Welcoming Business Travelers and Tourists to America Act of 2011".
I was asked for my two cents by the Hill, and here are my pennies thrown in the pond.
First, a summary of the bill, dated September 23, 2011 from the Congressional Research Service:
Welcoming Business Travelers and Tourists to America Act of 2011 - Directs the Secretary of State to: (1) set a visa processing standard of 12 or fewer calendar days at U.S. diplomatic and consular missions in China, Brazil, and India; and (2) use machine readable nonimmigrant visa fees to hire a sufficient number of Foreign Service officers and limited non-career appointment consular officers to maintain such standard. Directs the Secretary to: (1) conduct a two-year pilot program for the processing of nonimmigrant visas using secure remote video-conferencing technology for visa interviews, and (2) work with other federal agencies that use such secure communications to help ensure security of the video-conferencing transmission and encryption. Directs the Secretary to provide Congress with an annual forecast of demand through 2020 for nonimmigrant visas in the high-growth markets of Brazil, China, and India. Authorizes the Secretary to modify or enter into agreements with certain countries on a non-reciprocal basis to allow for longer visa validity periods if doing so causes no adverse effects to the United States.
The bill's premise is to get tourists into the United States to spend money. We need to do so, the logic continues, by processing visas more quickly for the nationals of countries who seek to come here most urgently, China, Brazil, and India. The bill's solution? Video-conferencing of interviewees and the State Department's ability to unilaterally modify visa validity periods for any country once video-conferencing is proven as a fast and effective solution to interviews. Video-conferencing, and a pilot of video-conferencing, is a good step forward to deal with State's continual lack of necessary resources to adjudicate high visa volumes. Better to use video conferencing if the other choice is no interview at all. Video-conferencing also holds potential for Visa Security Units (VSUs). These Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents assigned to embassies abroad conduct national security reviews of consular referrals for questionable visa applications like that of the Christmas Day bomber of 2009. In some embassies, State Department facilities are too cramped for VSUs and video-conferencing could help augment staffing needs. I testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the need for VSUs in May 2011.
However, here's the hitch: Why do we need this bill? The president made an announcement in January 2012 in Disney World that he is basically eliminating visa interviews from exactly the places stated in the bill because they don't have quick enough visa application processing times — China, Brazil, and India. (Although my understanding is that at least a dozen more countries are getting the Obama special "no interview" treatment as well). I am not sure if the need is still there — if this bill is even relevant — when the president essentially has already signed an executive order to welcome business travelers and tourists to America (without Congress ever having considered the president's request) by negating the visa interview altogether for "certain classes of visa applicants." Before a complete determination can be made of the relevancy of this bill, Congress needs to demand that the State Department and Department of Homeland Security (officially responsible for visa security policy) provide the exact terms of the White House visa interview waiver.
Here is what I said about China, Brazil, and India getting blanket access to the United States in my blog, "President Obama Rolls Out Mickey Mouse Visa Policy":
There are multiple issues here. First, economic security is threatened beyond the happy-go-lucky tourism argument that dominated the president's speech. Inviting people as tourists from countries where the citizens for years have come to the United States for jobs to get away from poverty (Brazil and India) or a repressive regime that is openly not America's friend and whose people have been smuggled here illegally across both our northern and southern borders for years (China), is inviting a surge in visa overstays and potentially flooding a downturned economy with more foreigners illegally seeking American jobs. Visa overstays are illegal aliens, and thus eligible for amnesty. Viola! The president has another means to amnesty by any means.
For Hill junkies, here's some in-the-weeds analysis. I consider Sec. 4 below unduly vague. What video-conferencing for what countries, under what circumstances, and with what personnel?
SEC. 4. VISA VIDEO-CONFERENCING.
(a) Pilot Program - The Secretary of State shall conduct a two-year pilot program for the processing of nonimmigrant visas using secure remote video-conferencing technology as a method for conducting visa interviews of applicants, and shall work with other Federal agencies that use such secure communications to help ensure security of the video-conferencing transmission and encryption.
I consider Sec. 7 unduly broad and unnecessary and the video-conferencing results have no nexus to longer visa validity periods. This provision has no limitations on how the secretary uses her discretion to modify agreements with other countries on visa validity time frames. What’s the issue with this? First, Section 7 of this bill would override the reciprocity requirement of INA 221(c) that has existed since 1952 to assure a strong U.S. negotiating position to assure U.S. citizens receive the same treatment traveling abroad as foreign visitors coming to the U.S.. Second, the State Department would like to bypass actually vetting Chinese, Indian and Brazilian tourists who come for pleasure, but only are given visa validity for the term of their stay in the U.S. Are these countries willing to do the same for us? Are we sure we are not inviting a visa overstay issue with extra-long visa periods that promote a desire to immigrate, even if illegally?
SEC. 7. VISA VALIDITY PERIOD.
If the Secretary of State can demonstrate no adversarial effects to the United States, the Secretary may modify or enter into agreements with certain countries on a non-reciprocal basis to allow for longer visa validity periods than the periods with such countries that are in existence as of the date of the enactment of this Act.
Recommendation: Congress should consider a straightforward visa video-conferencing bill, not connected to visa validity, to simply test its viability, with its future use to be determined by the results of a pilot. Leave the rest of the bill out. It is unnecessary and already (likely) usurped by President Obama's visa interview waiver announcement in January.