New U.S. Visa Interview Waiver Pilot Program in China: a Political Minefield?

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke announced the establishment of a new U.S. visa interview pilot program in China. This is good news, but the Administration may be entering a political minefield.

As background, President Obama issued a January 19 executive order aimed at improving U.S. visa processing in China. The order requires the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to create a plan within 60 days to

  1. “increase nonimmigrant visa processing capacity in China … by 40 percent over the coming year”; and
  2. “ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within 3 weeks of receipt of application….”

This pilot program will allow consular officers to waive interviews for applicants applying for a new B (visitor for business or pleasure), C1 (transit), D (crewmember), F or M (student), J (exchange visitor), or O (extraordinary ability) visa within 48 months of the expiration of their previously held visa in the same category.

The pilot program actually expands on prior procedures that allowed consular officers to waive interviews for applicants applying for a new visa within 12 months of the expiration of the previously held visa in the same category.

The Ambassador estimated that “as many as 100,000″ applicants per year may qualify for this interview waiver program. To apply, applicants will drop off their applications at select CITIC Bank branches. Consular officers will continue to have the power to require an interview as a matter of discretion where it would be helpful to adjudicate an application.

The politics of this initiative may be a minefield. The Ambassador said the pilot program was “under a new initiative announced by the President.” But, while the President’s executive order does set goals for accelerating visa adjudications, it does not explicitly mention interview waivers.

Under current law, enacted in the wake of 911, interviews are required in almost every case, with notable exceptions including applicants under 14 or over 79 years old and applicants whose visas have not been expired for more than 12 months. Beyond that, the law allows interview waivers where the Secretary of State determines it is in the “national interest.”

The executive order appears to have been designed to, on the one hand, give Secretary Clinton political cover to determine that interview waivers are in the “national interest” while, on the other hand, allowing the President to plausibly deny that he authorized such waivers.

The “national interest” justifying Secretary Clinton’s waiver of the interview requirement appears to be, as emphasized by the Ambassador, that each Chinese visitor to the U.S. spends some 6,000, with the result that about 23 visitors creates one new U.S. job. With a million Chinese visitors to the U.S. per year, this is more than a drop in the bucket towards the U.S. economic recovery. A recent State Department press release said as much: “Facilitating international travel is important to the U.S. economy, a vital national interest.”

But to avoid potential Republican backlash, the President may have felt he needed the ability to deny that he authorized interview waivers. An example of the opposition is Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who said of the executive order:

The President’s proposal flies in the face of the law we’ve had on the books because of 9/11. Only two of the 19 hijackers were interviewed by consular officers, so Congress mandated that all visa applicants be interviewed, with very few exceptions.

Once again, this administration is pushing the envelope and using their authority beyond congressional intent, allowing untold numbers of foreign nationals to bypass the in-person interview requirement, and risking national security in the process.

Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and sits on the Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee. He’s thwarted sensible immigration reforms in the past.

Just last year, David T. Donahue, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services, testified before the a Senate Subcommittee that interviews wouldn’t be waived without Congressional support:

Under INA sec. 222(h), the Secretary of State has the authority, subject to certain limitations, to waive the personal interview requirement on the basis of a U.S. national interest…. We are considering whether there are limited categories of low-risk applicants from low-risk countries for which the Secretary might exercise her interview waiver authority without compromising the security or integrity of the visa process. This is a step forward we will take only with concurrence from our law enforcement partners and with your support.

It’s possible that Senateor Grassley and others in Congress could see the interview waiver pilot program as breaking a promise not to act without congressional support.

In sum, visa interview waivers–common before 911–are politically contentious but can be good policy. Here, the applicants have all been interviewed in the past. Consular officers will check that the applicants complied with the terms of their prior visas, and a battery of security checks will be done on every applicant. This visa interview waiver pilot program is a good thing because it allows the U.S. Consular Mission to more efficiently adjudicate visa applications without compromising security, thereby boosting the U.S. economy. The careful wording of the executive order may allow Obama to avoid a political backlash. But that remains to be seen.

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