A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would require visas for travelers to the U.S. to be processed within 12 days and tackle long visa wait times in Brazil, India, and China, in particular, by increasing staff at U.S. consular offices and authorizing the use of videoconferencing to conduct visa interviews.
The “Welcoming Business Travelers and Tourists to America Act of 2011,” introduced by Congressman Joe Heck (R-Nev.), provides the kinds of solutions that the U.S. Travel Association has been lobbying for to improve the visa entry system.
If passed, the bill would set a standard of 12 days to process visas. “This would be the first time that Congress has set a standard,” explains Patricia Rojas, vice president of government relations, U.S. Travel, Washington, D.C. While there won’t be a penalty for not meeting the standard, the law would build in more accountability, says Rojas. If the standard isn’t being met, the State Department will have to explain to Congress why it isn’t being met and offer a plan for improvement.
Currently, the U.S. State Department has a goal of processing all visas within 30 days, but it has failed to meet the goal in China, Brazil, and India, where demand is high wait times are often three to four months. A study done earlier this year by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research found that long wait times prevented 116,000 people from attending U.S. meetings in 2010.
To meet the 12-day standard, the bill calls for bulking up staffing in consular offices in China, India, and Brazil. “It’s important to look at the current [consular] space and try to maximize the capacity,” says Rojas. That means creating additional shifts, so processing windows are open for more hours per day, and opening offices on weekends. There is no requirement in the measure to build or open additional consular offices. There is also no need for any additional funding, Rojas explains, as visa-processing fees would pay for the additional staffing.
A more efficient visa-processing system will create jobs, adds Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel. "Increasing travel to the United States is the most effective form of economic stimulus, and we can create more than a million jobs by reforming our visa system and welcoming more international travelers to the U.S.”
The bill also calls for creation of a pilot program in which consular officials conduct visa interviews by videoconference. “We don’t have consulates in every city around the world,” says Rojas. For example, in Brazil, she says, “we have four consulates so people have to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to get to the consulate.”
Just days before Heck introduced the House bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee included similar language in its 2012 State Department Foreign Operations Bill. Specifically, the Senate bill gives the go ahead for additional consulate staff in Brazil, China, and India and the videoconferencing pilot program. However, it does not set a 12-day visa-processing standard.
The Senate bill is a funding bill and, traditionally, funding bills are passed by the end of October, says Rojas. So, if this were to pass, it would likely be this year. Rojas says she hopes that the House bill will be adopted as part of a jobs package that Congress moves on later this year or early next year. “It’s more likely that Congress will act on appropriations budget process and then move over to a jobs package,” she says.