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Visa applicants caught between 'borders and doors'
By Theresa Bradley (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-06-14 10:13

A U.S. embassy visa call center reopened for business last Friday, six weeks after Shanghai police closed it down, in effect putting a freeze on the processing of new visa applications for weeks.

Since its launch March 3, the China-wide call center had grown to field 10,000 calls a week, addressing visa-related questions and scheduling applicant interviews.

To access the line this spring, callers purchased 54 yuan, pre-paid phone cards, good for 12 minutes. Some complained about the price, prompting an investigation through which Chinese authorities determined that the local IT company contracted to run the line had not been properly authorized to do so.

Shanghai-based Xin An Information Services "had not been authorized, and its standards not verified by the authorities in charge, so it was an illegal business, and it was required to put an immediate end to its operation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters at the time.

In an April 27 statement, the U.S. embassy replied that it was "surprised and disappointed" by the decision, since it "had been working closely with Chinese officials for months to establish the call center and discuss operating procedures."

A U.S. consulate spokeswoman in Shanghai last week declined to comment on the closing, the selection of Xin An for the contract, or the schedule of fees.

The newly reopened call center - which Monday again became the only way to schedule a visa applicant interview in Shanghai - plans to introduce an alternative, 8-minute pre-paid phone card next month, reportedly for 36 yuan.

Call Center Context: Fingerprinting

The dispute over the visa call center marks just the latest chapter in an ongoing drama that surrounds U.S. visa policy, tightened worldwide for most applicants following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Observers in this case note that Chinese authorities closed the visa call center barely one month after the U.S. instituted a new policy in China requiring all visa applicants to be fingerprinted.

In a statement last March, the Foreign Ministry assailed the fingerprinting requirement as "discrimination against Chinese citizens and infringement upon their human dignity and privacy rights," and vowed to retaliate with new visa restrictions of its own against U.S. citizens.

"The U.S. claims that this measure is a safeguard against terrorism, but not a single terrorist has ever entered the United States from China," Foreign Ministry North America director He Yafei noted April 7.

In accordance with a border security act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2002, fingerprints are now collected at American consular offices in more than 70 nations.

But central to Chinese objections is the fact that residents of 27 mostly European "visa waiver" states - so called because their citizens do not require visas to travel to the U.S. - were exempt from fingerprinting. To impose the requirement on China, but not on visa waiver states, was discriminatory, officials suggested.

That argument fell apart on April 2, when the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Technology (US-VISIT) program was extended to include the 27 waiver states. Now citizens of every country in the world - except diplomats, Canadians, and some Mexican border crossing cardholders - must be fingerprinted in order to enter the U.S..

The decision to extend US-VISIT was a compromise, but not one with an eye to China. It was, in fact, intended to convince the U.S. Congress to postpone a reportedly unrealistic deadline for waiver-states, who had been required to issue citizens biometric passports by October 26, or face the full visa application process. Under US-VISIT, waiver-state citizens can instead be fingerprinted and photographed at ports of entry, in a process said to take less than 30 seconds.

'Visa Wars' & Retaliation

China is not alone in its objection to post-9/11 U.S. visa policy. When fingerprinting was first required of visa applicants in Brazil this January, the Brazilian government introduced reciprocal fingerprinting of U.S. citizens, and heated rows erupted at airports.

Retaliatory restrictions taken by the Chinese foreign ministry this year have included issuing visas to U.S. citizens only overseas, rather than at ports of entry; requiring diplomats on personal travel to apply for ordinary visas and pay associated fees; and compelling some visa applicants to be interviewed.

"We fully expect that other countries will adopt similar procedures. We recognize that it's a two way street," undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson told reporters April 2. "We welcome other countries moving to this kind of system."

History of U.S. Policy

China-specific U.S. immigration law began inauspiciously in 1882, when nativist fears of what contemporaries deemed "the yellow peril" prompted "The Chinese Exclusion Act," banning the entry of "Chinese laborers" in ten year terms. The acts were not repealed until 1943.

Country-specific quotas introduced with the National Origins Act of 1924 similarly showed strong preference to north and west European immigrants.

The Immigration Act of 1965 abolished those quotas, instead setting preferences for specific professions and family situations, and, in the context of the Cold War, made "political repression" sufficient criteria for admission.

Student exchange also began to pick up by 1965, more than doubling over 1955 levels. The People's Republic of China sent its first students to the U.S. in 1979, and by 1988 had displaced Japan as the leading provider of international students, a post it has held for 9 of 15 academic years since then.

U.S. immigration and visa policy were revised again in 1986, 1990, and 1996 - the latter in part a response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As had been the case with Hani Hanjour - the 9/11 hijacker who likely piloted American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon - suspected 1993 bomber Eyad Ismoil had been in the U.S. on an expired student visa at the time of the attack.

Had authorities followed up, critics said, they might have reached - or at least noticed - the truant students and stopped their respective attacks.

In order to prevent future abuse, the 1996 immigration bill proposed the creation of an electronic database, known as SEVIS (Student Exchange and Visitor Information System) to track student movement.

But academia objected to the system's perceived intrusion, cost, and hassle, and Congress agreed to withhold funding and keep SEVIS in pilot form.

9/11 and National Identity

9/11, it's often said, changed everything. "It's impossible to underestimate the impact that day had on American psychology," seasoned U.S.-watchers continue to tell international audiences.

That unavoidable fact still looms large for American policy makers - and, polls consistently show, for the electorate whom they serve. Not only had all 19 9/11 hijackers entered the United States legally - two were sent visa approval notices six months after they died commandeering the attacks.

Post 9/11 overhauls have been sweeping, transforming government, its structure, policies and mission - and challenging Americans to define themselves, their priorities and values, in a new light.

Hundreds of procedural changes continue to be hotly debated across the United States, as a nation of immigrants struggles within to combat the notion that it now has reason to halt that influx.

At the Department of State, a policy catchphrase calls employees to seek that holy grail of a balance between "Secure Borders and Open Doors."

Since 9/11, the Deparment has implemented new visa policies, including "Condor" background checks, imposed on citizens of 25 mostly Muslim nations with suspected ties to terror, and extended "Mantis" background checks, initially begun in 1998 to prevent the transfer of sensitive technology.

Changes have been made to the TAL, a "Technology Alert List" of sensitive academic subjects that mandate practitioners an automatic Mantis check. After 9/11 the list notoriously swelled to include 150 subfields, from nuclear physics to landscaping.

SEVIS received $36.8 million of funding in October 2001, as part of the USA PATRIOT Act. It kicked off operations early last year, and was largely operative by fall - although schools, reemboldened in a chorus of complaint, have reported serious glitches in the system.

Fingerprinting is now required to obtain a visa in China and more than 70 other nations; and US-VISIT fingerprinting and photo scan technology will be used at airports on "visa waiver" citizens while their governments continue perfect biometric passports, in accordance with U.S. regulations.

Losing Out: Kinks and Delays

But with new policies, come new consequences, and empirical evidence of visa-related loss has begun to gather in the U.S..

Numbers of international students enrolling at U.S. institutions have slowed, and graduate school applications fell by a third last year. 59 percent of educators blamed the decline on new visa procedures, according to an online poll sponsored by the Institute for International Education.

U.S. exporters also claim they have lost $30 billion in revenue and indirect costs due to visa delays since July 2002, according to a Santangelo Group study released last week. 73 percent of the diverse group surveyed reported currently or recently experiencing visa processing problems; and 51 percent claimed that the visa process "is worse today than it was one year ago."

The study reportedly found that visa applicants from China, India and Russia faced the most complications - a trend mirrored in studies of student visa delay.

But students from China and India in large numbers choose science and engineering-related study topics that also happen to appear on the "Technology Alert List," automatically triggering a time-consuming "Visa Mantis" background check.

And China, India and Russia also appear on the five-nation list of "non-proliferation export control countries." They are nuclear powers tagged and monitored by the U.S. Department of Energy as "known or emerging supplier states" - a likely factor in detailed screenings.

Power of Perception

Despite the widespread perception of hassle, visa wait times have actually declined markedly this year, according to assistant secretary of state for consular affairs Maura Harty.

Of seven million non-immigrant visas adjudicated in 2003, 2.2 percent were sent to Washington for more detailed "Mantis" or "Condor" checks - each lasting, on average, two months.

In 2004, Harty said, 80 percent of those checks have sailed through Washington within three weeks, leaving only 20% of 2.2% - or less than half of one percent - of all applicants waiting longer than three weeks.

And while the number of international visitors to the U.S. has undoubtedly dropped 30 percent since 2001, it can be hard to pinpoint why. Some people may be afraid to travel, or fear background checks; some may disapprove of U.S. policies, or just not want to deal with the potential hassle or long wait times.

But particularly in China, it might be that the perception those difficulties is actually worse than the problem itself. It is application - not acceptance - rates that fell among Chinese students at U.S. universities, and fewer than ever are signing up for the TOEFL English-language exam. More and more students tell of friends who say "Why bother?"

According to the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, hard numbers for an actual visa issuance-refusal ratio are not available. Even agreeing on a standard measure of success is not as simple as it seems. Would an applicant issued a visa on his tenth try, for example, chalk up a 10 percent, or a 100 percent, approval rate?

Defenders of U.S. policy stress that current visa procedures are more thorough, not more restrictive.

"It's really not much different from the changes in airline travel," Harty said last month. "Almost everyone is going to get on his or her plane, but we all need to allow some extra time, and to be prepared to take our shoes off, or answer some additional questions, for the sake of everyone 's security."

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