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Heck visa bill collides with homeland security concerns

WASHINGTON – A bill that would require the State Department to revamp its tourist visa process in key countries as a way to launch more visitors into the United States is running into homeland security concerns.

The department is pushing back against an effort by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., that would set a 12-day standard to schedule visa interviews for people in the emerging and lucrative markets of Brazil, China and India who are contemplating visits to Las Vegas or other destinations.

Heck’s bill also calls for the department to initiate a test program to conduct visa interviews by videoconference. While advertised as a further convenience for visa applicants in far-flung locales, the long-distance interview also has its doubters.

The Nevada Republican unveiled his bill to fanfare in September at a news conference in front of the Welcome to Las Vegas sign on the Strip, alongside other members of Congress, resort executives and Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman.

On Thursday, he made his case for it sitting alone at a long table before members of a House immigration subcommittee.

The State Department did not send a witness to the hearing but Heck has met with its officials and said he was aware of concerns.

Heck, who focuses on military and intelligence issues, insisted the bill does nothing to loosen protections put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Under pre-9/11 rules, 17 of the 19 attackers obtained visas without being interviewed.

“It does nothing to change the approval requirements for granting a visa, it just tries to streamline the process,” Heck said.

The legislation would increase application fees for the State Department to hire more consular officers to keep pace with the standard.

The discussion illustrated the challenge policymakers face in trying to balance homeland security against the desire to show a welcoming face to international visitors who contribute to the $800 billion travel and tourism industry.

While boosting tourism was a laudable goal, “Should we make sure every visa applicant has a sit-down interview so the consulate has the best ability possible to determine intent?” asked Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., the subcommittee chairman.

Heck said videoconferencing technology has advanced to where images can be sharp enough for doctors to diagnose patients on camera and secure enough for generals in Afghanistan to discuss drone strikes with counterparts at the Pentagon.

“It is almost like sitting in the room with the individual,” he said.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, questioned whether Heck’s bill was necessary. He said information he got from the State Department indicated the wait for interviews in most major cities in the targeted countries is only two to four days.

Heck conceded that the department has stepped up its review rate in recent months. But he said there was nothing to suggest that is sustainable without an order from Congress.

The Nevadan was backed up by Edward Alden, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has written on U.S. visa policy.

“The State Department has periodically reduced the wait times by surging staff when the backlogs have grown exceptionally long, only to relocate staff, fail to anticipate demand increases and have the wait times balloon again,” he said. “A year ago the wait times in many of these places was two, three, four months.”

Speaking against the bill, Janice Kephart, a former counsel for the 9/11 Commission, said it could fuel illegal immigration.

The number of illegal immigrants from China, Brazil and India has increased 70 percent over the past decade to 700,000 as migrants flee poverty and repression, “and most of these illegals must be overstays from issued visas,” she said.

“More tourist visas will mean more tourists coming over and becoming overstays,” said Kephart, who was speaking for the Center for Immigration Studies that advocates strict policies on immigration.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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