- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

Tighter visa controls are hurting the tourism industry and U.S business overseas, business groups told a Senate panel yesterday. But U.S. officials resisted suggestions they should rethink or postpone changes in the way that visas are issued.

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the FBI faced sharp questioning from a Senate panel about the balance between security and commerce.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said all the members of the panel were “worried about our economy. …”

“Since September 11, we’ve had a downer,” he said, much of which could be attributed to “frictional costs … security [measures] that businesses are taking … or trips that were not taken, sales that were not made, tourism that didn’t occur.”

He said the tighter visa plan that the officials were outlining was “an inhibitor on [economic] growth, in my judgment, a very substantial one.”

Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary of homeland security for policy in the border and transportation-security division, said after the hearing that he thought the administration had the balance between security and commerce about right.

“It’s a constant balancing every day. … How do you get the information you need [from travelers] to check against watch lists, without holding them up?”

Janice Jacobs, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, told the committee that the agencies involved in border control “are trying to work on these measures in a way that does not discourage travel.”

But Mr. Verdery acknowledged that security trumps other concerns on some issues.

Over the summer, the Department of Homeland Security suspended the transit-without-visa program, an arrangement that allowed air passengers to change planes in the United States even if they did not have a visa to enter the country. The department said it was acting on intelligence about a terrorist plot to exploit the loophole.

“We had a specific threat … we’ve suspended the program. We’re looking at it to see if it can be reinstated,” he said.

Jose Estorino, senior vice president of marketing for the Orlando, Fla., Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourism from overseas, an industry that he said generated $88 billion a year in spending, $12 billion in tax revenue and 1 million jobs, had been hit hard by changes in the visa process.

He said the drop-off in international travel to the United States since 2000 had cost the U.S. economy $15.3 billion.

Earlier this year, the State Department said all applicants for non-immigrant visas must be interviewed in person, a move William C. Oberlin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, said had raised the wait times from between two and five days to more than 60 days.

“Heavy-handed decisions like this have the unintended consequence of alienating our friends and allies,” he told the committee.

Both men complained that no extra resources had been provided to cope with the additional workload imposed by the changes.

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