Last month's hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform found general agreement that visa application processing has steadily improved since the initial implementation of post-9/11 procedures, but recognition that additional improvements are still needed. As is true with many such issues, inadequate funding is a major factor contributing to the problems that visitors face in obtaining a visa.
Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) and Ranking Minority Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) spoke of the importance of protecting national security. Both of them criticized, however, lengthy waits that some visa applicants have for a mandatory face-to-face interview with State Department consular staff.
State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services Tony Edson testified that more than seven million visa applications are adjudicated annually. Almost all applications require a personal interview, which one witness testified can last as little as five minutes. Once interviewed, 97% of applicants who are found to be qualified receive their visa within two days. The State Department has streamlined screening procedures for applicants requiring a more stringent review. State has also significantly increased its staffing.
A major problem identified by Jess Ford, Director for International Affairs and Trade of the Government Accountability Office, are delays in scheduling the personal interview. Ford testified that almost half the visa-issuing posts reported maximum waiting times of thirty or more days for at least one of the months between last September and this February. This problem was especially acute in India and China. GAO investigators found both a lack of staffing and office space to handle ever-increasing demands in these countries.
Despite processing improvements, witnesses testified that there are continuing difficulties in the visa issuing process. Yo-Yo Ma and Sandra Gibson of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters described significant delays and expenses that some performers encounter in obtaining visas. Kevin Schofield of Microsoft Research told the committee "the obstacles that face business visitors, students, and talented workers seeking to travel to the United States pose a problem of serious and damaging proportions. These obstacles are a direct threat to American competitiveness." Schofield fears that "the world's best and brightest students may ultimately decide that the difficulties of studying in the United States outweigh the benefits." He cited the current 163 day wait for a personal interview in Chennai, India for a temporary visa to come to the United States.
Other witnesses from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered recommended changes in the process. Schofield's testimony might have summarized best the current situation: ". . . in numerous consulates around the world, it takes weeks or months to get a visa application appointment. We do not believe this to be a function of unwillingness on the part of the State Department or its consulates; we see signs that they are trying, within their ability, to address these very serious issues. Rather, we believe this to be the result of a grave insufficiency of resources devoted to a function that is critical to our national interests."