Back in the olden days, American immigration protocols were little more than
a punchline for the bien-pensant: the way that you always had to answer
the question about whether you were, or ever had been, a member of the Communist
Party. You ticked the box saying no, you entered the country, you got on with
Things are very different now. People who follow immigration issues closely
already know this, but it seems to me at least that most of the recent changes
in the law have generally gone unnoticed.
Many of the changes seem designed to maximise inconvenience. The Immigration
and Naturalization Service, or INS, no longer exists: it has been moved from
the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security, and its name
has been changed to the Bureau
of Citizenship and Immigration Services, or BCIS. The old enforcement role
of the INS didn’t move to BCIS, however: it’s now a different part of Homeland
Security, called the Bureau
of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Meanwhile, the arm of the government which actually issues visas remains the
Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State
Department, although State seems to have much less control over what it does
and how it does it than it used to. Unless you come from one of 27
countries, you always need a visa to visit the US, but until now individual
consulates have had a lot of discretion in terms of the hoops they may or may
not force people to jump through before getting one. Starting tomorrow, however,
every single visa issued for entry into the United States will have to follow
a personal interview between the applicant and a consular offficial.
It’s not like the system is working smoothly at the moment and will easily
be able to cope with the extra workload. Back in May, when the system changed
and most people started having to have interviews, the State Department said
Visa applications are now subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than in
the past. For many applicants, a personal appearance interview is required
as a standard part of visa processing. Additionally, applicants affected by
these procedures are informed of the need for additional screening at the
time they submit their applications and are being advised to expect delays.
The time needed for adjudication of individual cases will continue to be difficult
to predict. For travelers, the need for an interview will mean additional
coordination with the embassy or consulate is needed to schedule an interview
appointment. We recommend that individuals build in ample time before their
planned travel date when seeking to obtain a visa.
Now, things are only going to get worse. Whole classes of visitors, like South
Koreans over the age of 55, who were not interviewed until now, will have to
start waiting for appointments. (The Seoul consulate is the most overworked
in the world: since South Korea isn’t part of the visa waiver scheme, every
Korean in the US needs a visa, and there are a lot of Koreans travelling here.)
It’s not just Koreans who are going to be inconvenienced, however. The waiting
time for obtaining a visa in Delhi is already legendary, and even America’s
best friends, the Israelis, have to go in for a personal interview if they want
to be able to travel to the United States.
You even need a personal interview if all you’re doing is changing
your visa. Here’s a true story: a Turkish journalist was working for a US news
organisation on an H visa, and then switched jobs to work for a Turkish news
organisation. So he applied for, and received, a change of status from the Department
of Homeland Security: they approved his change from working on an H visa to
working on an I visa. (These things are incredibly important if you’re a foreigner
in the US.) The journalist then was sent down to Venezuela to cover the demonstrations
there, whereupon he learned that he wasn’t allowed to return to the US. He had
his authorisation from Homeland Security, but he didn’t have his actual new
visa, from State. To get that, he had to fly from Venezuela to Turkey,
apply for the visa in Istanbul, get the piece of paper in his passport, and
then, finally, go back home.
While all these things are justified in the name of increased national security
post-9/11, most of the inconveniences with the system seem to be bureaucratic
snafus rather than anything justifiable on the grounds of the war against terror.
It’s hard to understand, for instance, why I would need
to register with the State Department just to be able to get a driver’s
license, and only because I’m a journalist.
And things are going to be getting worse for the foreseeable future. By October
26 next year, for instance, all US visas will have biometric information embedded
in them somehow – the State Department isn’t entirely sure how, yet. There
will certainly be a photograph, and probably a fingerprint, or maybe some kind
of retinal scan. Once I get my next visa, I’ll probably have my fingerprints
or irises checked every time I come into the country. There’s no way that that
is going to speed up the lines at JFK.
I’m lucky, however, that I’m from one of the 27 visa-waiver countries, rather
than one of the 27 NSEERS countries, since citizens of those countries are already
fingerprinted and photographed every time they enter the US. (Since State does
visas and Homeland Security does immigration, the two programmes are completely
separate, and soon visitors from these countries are going to have to be fingerprinted
twice before they enter the country: once when they apply for their visa, and
then a second time at the airport.)
NSEERS, which stands for National Security Entry Exit Registration System,
is by far the most Big Brotherish of the government’s programmes. It’s expanding
fast: it started with just Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria – the countries
you can imagine that the US would be most worried about. Soon men from Afghanistan,
Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia,
Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen were added to the list: it seems that
the US was keen to cover pretty much the entire Arab world. Next came Pakistan
and Saudi Arabia, followed by Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Kuwait.
Yes, all men from friendly, secular Muslim countries like Egypt and Indonesia
now have to get fingerprinted upon arrival in the US, and then need to report
to the authorities after being here for 30 days and then every year thereafter.
If they arrived here before the rule was enacted, they need to report to an
Immigration Office anyway. And if anything is found to be amiss with their status,
they’ll probably be deported.
It gets worse. It’s not only INS (sorry, BCIS) agents who are going to be wielding
this kind of power – after all, they’ve been doing that kind of thing
for years. But here’s John Ashcroft, announcing
When aliens violate these rules, we will place their photographs, fingerprints,
and information in the National Crime Information Center (or NCIC) system.
The nation’s 650,000 police officers check this system regularly in the course
of traffic stops and routine encounters.
When federal, state and local law enforcement officers encounter an alien
of national security concern who has been listed on the NCIC for violating
immigration law, federal law permits them to arrest that individual and transfer
him to the custody of the INS.
In other words, get caught speeding – or even just get stopped as part
of a routine traffic stop – and you could be deported. And if you’re burgled,
or assaulted, if you’re being abused, or being paid less than the minimum wage,
don’t even think about going to the police. If John Ashcroft was deliberately
trying to create a scheme where immigrant communities would be cut off from
the rest of society and pushed into taking the law into their own hands, he
could hardly have designed it better.
What’s more, the government isn’t going to stop now it’s covered the entire
Muslim world. Notes Ashcroft: "Congress has mandated that, by 2005, the
Department of Justice build an entry-exit system that tracks virtually all of
the 35 million foreign visitors who come to the United States annually."
So along with their biometrically-enhanced visas, some 35 million visitors
a year to the Land of the Free are going to be tracked by the Department
of Homeland Security. Here’s Ashcroft again:
We are an open country that welcomes the people of the world to visit our
blessed land. We will continue to greet our international neighbors with good
will. Asking some visitors to verify their activities while they are here
is fully consistent with that outlook.
So just remember, next time you’re asked to "verify your activity",
that in fact you’re beeing greeted with good will. There. It doesn’t
seem so bad, now, does it?