- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

The number of U.S. visas issued in countries that sponsor terrorism has dropped dramatically since Congress passed legislation last year tightening visitation procedures.

Face-to-face interviews are now required under the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act passed last May and lead to the decrease in numbers. Officials also said fewer people from those targeted countries are applying for the visas.

According to figures provided by the State Department to The Washington Times, officials have cut the number of visas issued from nations that sponsor terrorism by more than half.

From June 1, 2002, through Feb. 23, 2003, nearly 20,000 visas were issued to residents or natives of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.

During the same time period of the year previous, June 1, 2001, to Feb. 23, 2002, more than 46,000 visas were issued in those countries.

"The law is improving our national security by carefully assessing the security threat posed by individuals from countries that sponsor terrorism," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"Given the efforts [by countries that sponsor terrorism] to obtain and develop weapons of mass destruction, we must ensure that those individuals coming here do so with good intentions," said Mr. Sensenbrenner, who was the main sponsor of the legislation.

In the 2001-2002 time period, more than 1,000 student and nearly 700 work visas were issued. In the 2002-2003 period, just over 300 student visas and 200 work visas were approved.

"It's had a big impact," Stuart Patt, State Department spokesman, said of the new requirement.

All but three of the 19 terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks were in the United States on travel visas, 15 of which were issued from Saudi Arabia.

The visa express program, which allowed Saudis to apply over the Internet or through travel agents with no interviews, was sharply criticized by Congress and led to the resignation of Mary Ryan, who headed consular affairs. Saudi men in a particular age group must now be interviewed.

The most significant drop came from Cuba more than 18,000 visas were issued in the year prior to the legislation versus 7,000 for the year following.

Iran saw a notable drop more than 14,000 visas in the year prior to the law, nearly 6,000 during the following year. In Iraq, the number was cut in half to just over 1,000 to 2,000.

The new rule appears to have deterred some terrorists who might be afraid to use bogus applications to gain entrance into the country, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center of Immigration Studies.

The list of states that sponsor terrorism is determined by the State Department under criteria set by Congress.

"In certain areas, including Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, state sponsors remain an important driving force behind terrorism," said the last State Department report on Patterns of Global Terrorism, which established this year's list.

"Iran continues its firm support to Hizballah, HAMAS, and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. Iraq employs terrorism against dissident Iraqi groups opposed to Saddam Hussein's regime. Syria continued its support for Hizballah and allowed HAMAS, the Palestine Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian rejectionist groups to maintain offices in Damascus," the report said.

There are no visa restrictions on Saudi Arabia because the state is not considered a sponsor of terrorists. However, a significant drop in numbers has been recorded there since the visa express program was dismantled.

In the 2001-2002 time frame, nearly 29,000 visas were issued from Saudi Arabia, compared with nearly 9,000 in the last year.

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