US Visa Express All Over Again

By Jessica M. Vaughan on February 9, 2009

In the name of work load reduction, US embassies and consulates are in the process of rolling back certain security improvements imposed by Congress and the State Department after 9/11, with potentially serious public safety implications. Specifically, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has decided to allow posts to waive the interview requirement for applicants who are applying to renew temporary visas. The move represents a return to the reckless assembly line corner-cutting mentality that facilitated the entry of the 9/11 terrorists (read Janice Kephart's work, Joel Mowbray’s award-winning coverage and the GAO's report).

Some consular officers have protested the interview relaxation rules, because they lead to rubber-stamp approvals and deny them an opportunity to question applicants about potentially disqualifying behavior during their previous stay, such as drunk driving. The policy change seems particularly inappropriate for the H-2 guestworker category (for low-skill workers), where the rules were recently changed to increase admissions, and where the applicants are often marginally qualified to begin with. In light of the litany of victims from alien drunk-driving and gang violence, the Bureau needs to re-examine which applicants should qualify for expedited renewals, and ensure that visa officers have enough time and access to the information they need to keep out ineligible applicants.

Personal interviews are a critical step in the visa adjudication process; they give consular officers the chance to assess the applicant’s credibility in a way that is not possible merely by reviewing documents or performing an electronic name check. Under former consular affairs chief Maura Harty, the training of visa officers was greatly improved by adding instruction on detecting imposters and interpreting micro-expressions and body language.

While it might be ok to waive interviews for some applicants with a good travel history or who are clearly low-risk, it doesn’t make sense in categories of applicants that have a greater likelihood of overstaying – such as low-skill workers. Of course, we don’t really know which categories are most likely to overstay, since we still don’t have an operational entry-exit system in place yet, but some of these instances are an open secret to employers, community social service agencies, and even DHS.

Interview waivers make less sense when a pool of applicants is known to include workers who may be a public safety risk, such as gang members, convicted drunk drivers, or those with previous immigration violations. According to consular officers who work these cases, such derogatory information is not necessarily in immigration databases, but applicants will admit to it during the interview. Says one officer: “When we check with the police precinct, they normally confirm the DUI and state that it is not their normal procedure to enter these incidents in the NCIC (problematic states appear to be North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas – some of the largest recipients of H2 workers. [Under the new policy] we will miss the opportunity to find out things like DUI/DWI and other potential material facts that would normally lead to a refusal.”

In 2008, the State Department issued 64,404 H-2 visas to seasonal agricultural workers and 94,304 to non-agricultural workers, for a total of 158,708. (Although Congress passed a special measure to allow workers from the previous year to renew, only 1,054 of these were renewals, which might be a clue that some are not returning home after their gig.) Some consider these programs to be a model for a future guestworker program expansion. There is little economic justification for these programs to begin with (read Mark Krikorian and Phillip Martin's work on the subject), but if we have to have them for political reasons then the responsible agencies at least need to make sure that they are managed properly.