Coming to America

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

your life.

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

the scheme:

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?

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