February 6, 2007 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Shaping a Visa Policy in the National Interest

Many of America's friends are beginning to feel like unwanted guests.

Sure, they understand our caution in a post-September 11th world, but they think we don't appreciate them like we used to. We drag our feet deciding when they can stop by for a visit. We expect plenty of notice, and we have lots of questions.

It's high time to stop turning away millions of friends a year, and forcing millions more to travel hundreds of miles only to be left waiting on our doorstep, because we fear the entry of some of our worst enemies. Otherwise, those friends will choose to go someplace more hospitable.

Despite improvements, the way we process visas makes travel to the United States unnecessarily daunting. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security agreed to cooperate to unclog the system, but they work at cross-purposes that belie their slogan, "Secure Borders, Open Doors." And so our government continues to use the visa as a blunt instrument against terror, beating back not only terrorists but desired guests.

Last year, U.S. consulate officials subjected a world-renowned Indian scientist, Goverdhan Mehta, to a degrading process of proving he posed no threat -- when he sought a visa for a speaking engagement after dozens of previous visits here. Outrage in India prompted the U.S. government to reverse course and grant the visa, but Dr. Mehta decided not to come after all.

In another case, Hollywood designer Ahmet Ahmet was denied a timely return from Britain twice in less than two years pending security reviews for unspecified reasons. He learned January 11th, after a six-month ordeal, that the U.S. Embassy in London had cleared him to fly home to Los Angeles with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, The Los Angeles Times reported. Mr. Ahmet, a 48-year-old British citizen of Turkish descent who oversaw his company's work on the "Harry Potter" and "Spider-Man" movies, had traveled to Britain to visit his ill mother.

Obviously, our ability to sustain strong diplomatic, academic, business and cultural ties with other countries relies on the ease with which their citizens can travel to the United States. If we don't ensure this essential flow, we won't remain the destination of choice for the best and brightest.

A coalition of organizations -- The Heritage Foundation; NAFSA: Association of International Educators; the National Foreign Trade Council; the Coalition for Employment Through Exports; and the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange -- has come together to urge specific action.

Competition is fierce in the global marketplace. That's why it's critical to make fundamental reforms. We can address legitimate security concerns without pulling in the welcome mat.

If you wanted to visit another country, but that country required you to leave your home in Chicago and travel 600 miles to Washington, D.C., for a personal interview before you could get a visa, wouldn't you look into more convenient destinations?

Yet that sort of inconvenience is precisely what we subject U.S.-bound travelers to, even those who present no security concerns whatsoever. That's because Congress in 2004 passed an inflexible law requiring that virtually all applicants for a non-immigrant visa be interviewed. Let's change the law to permit the State Department to assess risk and waive interviews.

The Visa Waiver Program already allows most visitors from Britain, France, Germany and 24 other countries, if they carry valid passports, to enter without a visa for up to 90 days. Congress should expand the program to encompass more allies and friendly nations such as Poland and India.

Today, as the Mehta case illustrates, an eminent scientist with many prior visa approvals has to go through the same onerous process to get a visa as does a stranger off the street. No wonder important scientific meetings and research increasingly take place in other countries. A "Trusted Traveler" program is needed to expedite approvals for frequent, previously cleared travelers.

Dr. Mehta, having covered hundreds of miles for an interview, was advised that he had to return with more documentation. Had he been able to submit his application online, the consulate could have pre-screened him. It could have e-mailed him to bring the documentation. Let's implement a fully electronic ("paperless") application process.

Keeping visas out of the hands of decent folks doesn't make us safer. When security does its job with available technology, it detects and thwarts terrorists.

Our guests help ensure that America remains a better, freer, more prosperous place. Welcoming them as friends is as much a part of winning the War on Terror as is foiling the terrorists.

James Carafano is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation and author of the new book "G.I. Ingenuity." Marlene M. Johnson is executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators and served as lieutenant governor of Minnesota from 1983-1991.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in WashingtonPost.com