Breaking the Visa Backlog

Tony Edson has one tough job. As the State Dept.'s deputy assistant secretary for visa services, Edson tries constantly to balance two divergent policy goals: securing U.S. borders from terrorists and other bad guys, while keeping them open for engineers, workers, and other high-skilled immigrants. It's a hot-button issue that has a lot of tech companies, who rely on skilled employees from overseas, worried (see BW Online, 05/01/06, "Give Me Your Diligent, Your Smart").

Edson's job has been made all the harder since it became clear that terrorists exploited the visa system to launch the September 11 attacks. Since then, the U.S. has shored up its borders. But because some of those well-intentioned security restrictions have been indiscriminately applied, tens of thousands of foreign students and skilled workers have been prevented or scared away from entering the country. In 2004, the U.S. admitted 613,221 foreign students, down from 637,954 in 2002, according to the most recent data available from the Office of Immigration Statistics.

To improve the visa-issuance process and the handling of over 7 million visa applications annually, the State Dept. has created more than 515 new consular jobs, enhanced counter-terrorism training of officers, and automated the system for transmitting and receiving security clearances from government agencies. To find out what other moves Foggy Bottom is making to keep attracting the best and the brightest, BusinessWeek's Spencer E. Ante recently interviewed Edson. Here are edited excerpts.

What changes have you made to help improve the visa process for high-skilled non-immigrants and workers?After September 11, Congress imposed two significant changes to the way visas were processed. One was a requirement to interview nearly 100% of visa applicants. Two: We had to use biometric checks for applicants, including a finger scan. So we implemented special screening procedures.

All applicants are subject to a name-based watchlist check. About 2.5% will be subject to special security screening procedures (called Visa Mantis checks), which have caused some significant delays.

After 2003 we made some investments in automation and people. We've had to restructure our work flow to deal with the inflow of applicants. There could be a significant wait for the appointment, such as in India. What it takes to qualify for a visa has not changed. What's changed is the way those applications are processed.

Are you satisfied with the progress the department had made in the past year?Today [Visa Mantis security checks] are one week faster than before September 11. We're pretty happy with that.

But what about visa wait times? It takes more than five months to just to get a visa appointment in several consulates in India.We have 211 visa posts around the world. The number of places where it takes longer than a month to get an appointment is a couple dozen at most. I don't think we'll ever be satisfied.

Managing the visa process will always be an ongoing challenge. We'll never be perfect. But we can improve security and efficiency. In India, they replaced the appointment system with an online system. We were getting ghost appointments for placeholders. We had a huge no-show rate. Still, if you had an urgent need in almost all cases an appointment could be made in three to four weeks.

What else are you doing in India to reduce wait times? We've added people. Since 2001 we've added 25 officers in India, which is significant. We added some windows to interview people. We have a new building planned to come onto line in Mumbai in 2008. And we will open a consulate in Hyderabad. We've broken the back of the problem now. We also do an extended work day.

What is your goal for processing visa applications?Three days is the rough rule of thumb. We're much more concerned about the ones that have much longer delays. Mexico and India are above 30 days. The solution will be a combination of the [new U.S. government border security plan]...and country-specific management changes.

Do you need more resources to handle visa applications?I think we have enough financial resources. The lag between new demand and your ability to respond is challenging. Hiring takes two years with training. We hired a consultant to do forecasting. India and China drove us to do that. Demand just keeps on growing. I think it will get wait times down by the end of the year, although wait times climb in summer.

Some critics say not everyone needs to be interviewed and that the State Dept. should only focus on the most high-risk entrants. Is that a good idea?The interview is an extremely valuable counter-terrorism tool and law enforcement tool. The language in the law does allow us some discretion for people who have already interviewed. As we get better at risk analysis and smart screening, we would look forward to having more flexibility on the interview.

How close are you to that point?Every year we get better at screening. It is incredibly more sophisticated.

Some critics say the Technology Alert List, which is supposed to list sensitive technologies dealing with the military or weapons of mass destruction, covers almost every technology. Is the list too broad?It is reviewed and reissued each year with broad consultation. It is the best judgment of what should be screened. It happens some times that consular officers can not make the right call. We use that as a training opportunity.

Some critics say consular officers lack the technical expertise to determine if an applicant's work represents a real risk or threat to the U.S. They recommend including more technical experts in the evaluation process. Is the department open to that?There are technical experts in Washington. We're not going to get that kind of expertise scattered globally.

To avoid the time it takes to renew a visa, educators suggest renegotiating bilateral agreements to extend the duration of visas. Is that a good idea?Our druthers would be the most expansive treatment possible in any country and we're prepared to match it. We're pleased we were able to increase the validity in China. We are discussing further possible improvements. The majority of countries have visas that last for 5 to 10 years.

The business community and university officials would also like to see the creation of a multiple-entry, long-term visa for certain reputable scientists and workers who need to visit the U.S. often. Is that being worked on?We did expand the validity of the Mantis check. If you stick with same purpose, it is now valid for students for four years, and temporary worker two years. That's made a big difference.

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