Russians Set to Benefit from New Visa Agreement

By Janice Kephart on June 23, 2011

The other day I was contacted by a Russian-American journalist working for an independent satellite TV station based in both Georgia and the Russian Federation stating that they are they are competing against the state-run news outlets in Russia. Why me? The journalist was concerned about the illegal immigration and national security implications of the U.S. intention to sign an agreement in July with the Russian government permitting three-year, multiple-entry visas. The relevant excerpt from the White House press release:

Taking into account the significant progress achieved by our negotiators, we are working on a new agreement to issue, as a general rule without unduly formalized invitations and justifications, multiple-entry visas for eligible business travelers and tourists of 36 month validity at a unified and reciprocal fee, as well as the issuance of 12-month, multiple-entry visas for official representatives of our countries. We aim to settle these issues and sign the agreement in the very near future, consistent with domestic procedures in both countries.

As relations between our countries grow stronger, and the ties become more intense, we will seek even greater simplification and liberalization of our countries' visa systems on a reciprocal basis, aimed at providing entry of U.S. citizens into Russia and of Russian citizens into the U.S. unencumbered by unnecessary formalities, in accordance with domestic legislation of each country. We are instructing our government agencies to work in this direction.

I am no foreign affairs specialist, but it seems common sense to be concerned about Russians' unfettered access to the United States for three years at a time. Moreover, such visas will entitle Russians to less scrutiny when traveling to the U.S. than our European NATO allies operating in visa reciprocity agreements under the Visa Waiver Program. Strange, right? Yup. That is because under Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancements negotiated by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, our European allies that fight alongside us in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the United Kingdom, must undergo what I call "mini-visa" vetting prior to travel to the United States, filling out electronic immigration forms referred to as ESTAs that are checked through watchlists. Such scrutiny is in accord with an underpinning of understanding with our visa waiver friends that security must be at the core of today's travel. However, a large loophole remains whereby countries with multiple-year entry visas – like Saudi Arabia had before 9/11 or the Christmas Bomber's home country of Nigeria – are not vetted before boarding.

On May 11, I testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement and recommended changes to how travelers from visa-issuing countries are vetted prior to travel. I concluded that standards similar to the Security Enhancements for pre-travel vetting needed to be extended across the globe to multi-year visa holders to ensure that derogatory intelligence and law enforcement data on travelers had not accrued since the date of visa issuance. We simply cannot afford to permit people like the Christmas bomber – where much of his derogatory information accrued after he obtained his U.S. visa – to be admitted simply because they hold a multi-year U.S. visa.

Yet let's take this one step further, dismiss Security Enhancement vetting and just discuss Russia for a moment. Russia is an ally of Iran and long known for its export of ruthless Russian Mafia and young women soliciting sham marriages to American men, as well as a well-documented jihadi destination during Chechen wars. This creates a funky array of potential overstays for any variety of criminal, fraudulent, or terrorist intentions.

In addition, the Russian Federation is quite USSR-Old School in its immigration policy, and is very careful about who is in the country, and what they are doing there. Note the White House press release specifically states that each country will retain its right to enforce its "domestic legislation." Unlike Russian travelers to the U.S., U.S. travelers to Russia must register upon entry at their exact location and return that registration upon exit, assuring a tracking mechanism for entry, stay, and exit. I doubt any of those "domestic" requirements will change. The U.S., as we know, only requires such information for entry, and tracks little to nothing subsequently. The Russians know we do not enforce overstays against non-criminals, with criminals only defined as those convicted of a crime in a court of law and discovered by law enforcement. Nor do we have an exit-tracking protocol, despite six laws in place demanding one, making overstay all that much easier. While low overstay rates are an essential element to obtain entry into the visa waiver program, Russia is bypassing that potential scrutiny by signing this bilateral agreement with the Obama administration.

Although I was well aware of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent controversial youtube announcement extending Iranian student visas from three-month single-use visas to two-year multiple-entry visas made the day after Iran's material support for 9/11 was made public by attorneys in a case for which I am a subject matter expert, I was still surprised at this news. While I am all for streamlining bureaucratic processing, we need to be careful when and with whom we do so. Is this the beginning of using our visa policy, once more, as a diplomatic tool to appease our known current or former enemies, believing it will foster better relations? Where's the accountability for vetting Iranians and Russians, and what happens, when a consular officer gets it wrong? We already learned what happens on 9/11, and courting our arguably biggest enemy in the world (Iran) and our former biggest enemy in the world whose relations are often rocky (Russia) with policies that open up national security vulnerabilities. Such policies don't serve our national interests at all, either from an immigration policy nor a security vantage point.