- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

U.S. companies say they are losing business because of post-September 11 security requirements that make visiting the country more difficult.
"We've got $5 million worth of equipment sitting on the floor that we've been waiting to ship … for over two months," said Chip Storie, director of sales for Cincinnati Machine, an Ohio company that makes equipment used in aircraft manufacturing.
A Chinese company that is buying the machinery wants to inspect it before it is shipped, but the company's executives have not been issued visas to visit the United States, Mr. Storie said.
The problem stems from U.S. government efforts to guard against terrorists entering the country. And it is indicative of a visa-issuance system that some business executives say has in some areas slowed or stalled since the government began implementing post-September 11 measures in the summer.
The measures are affecting dozens of companies, mainly in high-tech industries, according to Ed Rice, president of the Coalition for Employment through Exports, a business group that represents several exporters.
The visa backlog reached 25,000 in September, though the department has cleared many. The average waiting time is hovering around four months, Mr. Rice said, up from about one month prior to new security measures.
The visa-related complaints apply mainly to foreign business executives from emerging markets or buying sensitive technologies. China, India and Russia have been particularly affected, Mr. Rice said.
The result is business lost to foreign competitors, companies moving meetings and eventually manufacturing overseas, foreign employees unable to work at U.S. operations, and unplanned disruptions, he said.
Mr. Rice's group has been pressuring the Bush administration to reconsider the new restrictions that are hurting businesses.
The U.S. State Department, which issues visas, and government offices involved in national security and law enforcement mandated more-stringent visa checks through 2002.
The new measures stipulate the FBI and CIA must clear visas for foreign nationals from several Arab and/or Muslim countries and businessmen involved in buying certain high-tech products.
The immediate result was a backlog of cases, though the State Department said the system is improving and the waiting time has lessened.
"It has affected a great many people. But our national-security concerns have caused us to impose this new regimented review. We're doing our best to find ways to minimize inconvenience," said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
The State Department would not comment on specific numbers or any backlog related to the new visa-review processes. Overall, the department had 7.5 million visa applications for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2002, and refused 27.8 percent. In the previous 12 months, the department had 10 million applications and refused 25 percent, Mr. Patt said.
"We do still want people to come to the United States. We're not discouraging them for applying for visas, but we are going to screen as much as possible to make sure we are not issuing visas to people who should not get them," he said.
A report by the State Department's inspector general released in December said at visa-issuing posts "the new clearance procedures … have not identified any potential terrorists applying for visas."
Businesses say the government should take into account that the U.S. companies also are concerned with security and often have a track record of dealing with foreign companies.
"No one wants to appear to be putting commercial interests over national security," said an executive with a major American high-tech company, who asked that he not be named and his company not be identified.
"But it's quite a profound issue we haven't dealt with in the past. We don't want to tear the system down and say, 'Trust business' … but we want the government to be a little more surgical and smart about it," the executive said.
Beyond keeping customers and employees out, ease of access into and out of countries is becoming part of a business pitch for European and Canadian competitors.
"The Europeans don't have this problem and they're very quick to point this out," Mr. Storie said.
The problem stems largely from a lack of resources money and personnel used for the more in-depth screening process, Mr. Rice said.
He specifically blamed the FBI as the biggest bottleneck.
An FBI spokesman said the agency is effectively screening the applications, though statistics were not available.
"It may not necessarily be a backlog other than it takes time to research databases. To say a backlog means not doing anything," said Ed Cogswell, a bureau spokesman.
Businesses say they often don't know what the government is doing since they cannot get a response.
Len Chaloux, president of Moore Nanotechnology Systems, a New Hampshire company that makes high-precision machinery for the optics industry, said the company needed a Chinese businessman to come to the United States for an export-license meeting with Commerce Department officials.
The application went in Aug. 6 and then "fell into a black hole for a long time."
The visa was granted three weeks ago, but in the interim, the company could not make any business plans for the potential $500,000 sale.
"That's perhaps the most frustrating thing about the whole process,"Mr. Chaloux said.
"It was a half-million dollar piece of business. For us, it's very important."

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