- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

In less than two minutes, a foreigner can get a U.S. visa the stamp that admits into the nation thousands of defiant "visitors" who never leave.
It's not supposed to be that quick or easy for most aliens to gain access to the United States.
Those requesting entry must convince U.S. officials during an interview that they are who they say they are, that they honestly intend to visit for the reasons they cite and that they will return home when their visas expire.
A thorough interview to establish those points typically takes time. It involves a review of documents and shrewd questioning steps that too often are omitted, one former Foreign Service officer says.
The negligence exists, he says, because State Department employees charged with barring the gate to undesirable visitors are swamped with work, ill-trained in visa operations and often dispirited.
What's more, says Nikolai Wenzel, the former official, department employees routinely flout immigration law by approving the applications of impoverished foreigners who are destined to become U.S. charity cases. The applicants are accepted as immigrants eligible for permanent residency, although it's clear they cannot support themselves or rely on U.S. sponsors who often are destitute themselves.
It's a fact that most foreigners who arrive with temporary visas and refuse to leave meld peacefully if secretly and illegally into American society. They build new lives.
But a large number also stay to steal, deal drugs, run rackets or like the Palestinians who in 1998 plotted to blow up New York's subway to terrorize.
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials report that 40 percent to 50 percent of the more than 6 million people residing in the United States illegally are visa "overstayers." In recent years, members of Congress and top INS officials have warned repeatedly that visa "overstayers" and many others among the illegal immigrant population pose a serious risk to national security.

The Consular Corps

The agency charged with curtailing illegal immigration and enforcing U.S. immigration laws overseas is the State Department's 1,995-employee Bureau of Consular Affairs, also known as the Consular Corps.
Despite the bureau's important role, the Consular Corps rarely has been mentioned in the many congressional hearings on immigration policy, border violations and illegal immigrants. The bureau hasn't figured in the public clamor for action to stem the flow of illegal aliens, although, as one writer put it, the corps is "America's other Border Patrol."
In varied ways at embassies around the world, the Consular Corps assists U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad. Consular officials help when Americans die or become seriously ill overseas or when they are victimized by such political events as hostage-takings or caught in such natural disasters as earthquakes.
However, the corps' biggest, most routine jobs are the processing of applications from those who seek to enter the United States to work, study or vacation and the screening of those who wish to live here permanently.
A 1997 investigative report by the State Department's inspector general faulted the corps for doing that work poorly. The IG's report, titled "A Review of Immigrant Visa Processing," lends credence to Mr. Wenzel's assertions.
However, current and past Foreign Service officers offer tepid backing for Mr. Wenzel. They call him "a disgruntled officer" who lacked experience to make judgments because he served in the Consular Corps for just three years.
James Ward, a former high-ranking Foreign Service officer for whom Mr. Wenzel worked in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is one who voices such reservations.
"Nikolai is smart. And he was a competent officer," Mr. Ward says. "But he's writing from a narrow perspective because of his limited time as a Foreign Service officer."

Pinpointing weaknesses

Nonetheless, Mr. Ward and others admit Mr. Wenzel makes valid points.
Those points are made in an eight-page document published and circulated by the Center for Immigration Studies, a locally based research organization affiliated with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR advocates measures to curb illegal immigration and to change immigration policies.
The IG's report, to which the Wenzel document adds detail, concludes that:
"There are weaknesses with the process … to determine the eligibility of immigration visa applicants… .
"The lack of language skills to adjudicate cases at posts processing visa applicants of different nationalities, the inability to perform adequate name checks of foreign names, and [the fact there is] no agency taking the lead in determining the existence of employers petitioning for immigrant workers could result in immigrant visas being issued to an ineligible applicant."
Beyond that, the IG wrote in general comments:
"We found officers adjudicating cases for applicants from several countries, although neither they nor the Foreign Service nationals who provide assistance could collectively speak the languages or read the applicant's documents.
"… [A] post that processed more than 100,000 applications a year had only $300 in its anti-fraud travel budget, which was not adequate for conducting its anti-fraud investigations. This post was also processing applicants from countries where fraud and drug trafficking are common."
Anti-fraud operations are necessary because visa applicants frequently present counterfeit documents and false identification to deceive consular officials.
Regarding fraud operations, Mr. Wenzel argues that the Consular Corps puts more emphasis on politeness and public relations than on fighting fraud. He writes:
"Anti-fraud units range from units staffed by several officials, including a mid-level American officer supervising a team of local investigators, to nominal units consisting of a single junior officer who also shoulders the full-time responsibility of conducting regular daily visa interviews."

Processing applications

The Consular Corps has primary responsibility for issuing "nonimmigrant visas," meaning short-term, temporary-stay entry permits.
Some regular travelers to this country are part of a "visa waiver program." They gain easy entry just by showing their passports. But they are the exceptions to the general rule.
Consular officers generally are required to regard all nonimmigrant applicants as intending to stay in the United States. It is up to the applicants to satisfy consular officials they will leave when their visas expire. Applicants make this indication by producing documents showing where they live, work and bank their money, thus demonstrating ties to their native country.
The consular official checks the documents and questions the applicant. Based on the answers, on intuition and on knowledge of the culture and economic conditions of the applicant's country, the consular official approves or denies the application.
Mr. Wenzel writes that consular interviewers typically are inexperienced junior officers whose ranks include "State Department employees from Washington on so-called 'excursion tours' and the spouses of Foreign Service officers who are hired to fill the many vacant interviewing positions at visa offices worldwide."
As Mr. Wenzel and others depict it, these officials must cope with ever-lengthening lines of suppliants at the embassies and a crush of work. Mr. Wenzel asserts there is pressure "to reduce the lines," which are considered "eyesores" that besmirch the image of the United States.
He writes:
"In Mexico City … the unrealistically high numbers of daily interviews meant that each officer usually interviewed 150-200 applicants over a span of five to seven hours. This led to an average of about two minutes per application, during which a consular officer had to review documents, ask questions in Spanish, determine whether the applicant qualified for a nonimmigrant visa, and fill out the requisite paperwork."
The "desensitizing monotony" of hearing the same stories repeated 4,000 times a month "did not create an environment conducive to quality screening of applicants," Mr. Wenzel states. He adds that "low quality audio systems [made] it difficult for applicant and interviewer to hear each other through bulletproof glass," and the problem was complicated further because many applicants were illiterate.

Timid enforcement?

Consular officials' sessions with applicants for immigration visas are less harried. Such visas are different from temporary visas and lead to permanent residency in this country.
The majority of those wishing to emigrate to the United States must be sponsored by U.S. residents who pledge to sustain them initially and present evidence in an "affidavit of support."
The problem in processing those cases, as Mr. Wenzel sees it, is that "the State Department only timidly enforces the affidavit of support requirements."
If the sponsor has too little income to care for immigrants and the consular officer suspects the visa applicant one day may seek public benefits, "the law instructs the officer to refuse the applicant," Mr. Wenzel writes.
"In practice, consular officers routinely … issue visas to applicants whose sponsors are already living well below the poverty line, before the added burden of newcomers."
He adds, "Given the increasing level of poverty among immigrants in the United States, the State Department's role in effectively screening legal immigrants for financial solvency is also suspect."
Officials at the Bureau of Consular Affairs respond diplomatically to Mr. Wenzel's criticisms.
"Immigration policy is hotly debated around the country and internally at the State Department and INS. Obviously there are suggestions for improving the policy," a spokesman says. "But we do extensively train those doing consular services. And though we have a shortage of Foreign Service officers, we constantly strive to improve. It's always a struggle."

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