Washington, 20 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Every year millions of people from around the world apply for a visa to either visit or reside permanently in the United States.
Some are granted visas while many others are not. Critics of the U.S. visa system say the process is too arbitrary, confusing, and sometimes humiliating. Supporters maintain a complex process of issuing visas is needed because every year thousands of visitors to America overstay their visas and become illegal immigrants.
According to some historians, the U.S. visa was essentially invented around the turn of the 20th century in order to regulate the large influx of immigrants to America. After the U.S. Congress imposed a quota on the number of immigrants from certain countries in 1921, a pre-screening process at foreign locations run by U.S. government staff began which eventually turned into the visa process.
Today, U.S. federal law mandates that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. State Department share the responsibility of processing immigrant visas.
Visas are issued by American consulates under the control of the State Department. Since consulates are located abroad, visas can be issued only when the applicant is in a foreign country. However, once a person is physically in the U.S., all visa-related matters fall under the jurisdiction of the INS.
There are two categories of visas issued by the U.S. government. One is a nonimmigrant visa -- better known as the "visitor" visa -- given to people who are coming to the U.S. for a temporary stay. The other is an "immigrant" visa issued to those people seeking permanent residence in the U.S.
There are many types of visitor visas. For example, nonimmigrant visas are granted to those people wishing to enter America for pleasure as tourists or visiting family, for business purposes, or for seeking medical treatment. Other types of visas which fall in the nonimmigrant category include those issued to students, temporary workers, journalists and diplomats.
Although visitors come to the U.S. for a wide variety of reasons, all must meet three basic criteria in order to qualify for a visa.
According to State Department documents posted on the organization's Web site, the presumption of every U.S. official is that each visa applicant is a potential immigrant. Therefore, says the State Department, in order to overcome this presumption, the applicant must meet three criteria:
Clearly show that the purpose of the trip is for business, pleasure or medical treatment.
Prove that they intend to stay only for a specific, limited period of time
Show they have a residence outside of the U.S. as well as other binding ties which will insure their return abroad at the end of the visit.
Those applicants from countries that have a high rate of overstaying their visas may have to show additional documentation such as return airline tickets, evidence which supports the purpose of their trip like letters from relatives or friends and medical records from doctors, and "convincing evidence" that relatives or friends will provide financial assistance if so needed.
Applicants must present the documentation at an American embassy or consulate that has jurisdiction over their place of permanent residence. According to the State Department, visitors may apply at any U.S. consulate.
Some travelers do not need a visa to enter the United States. Citizens of countries participating in the "Visa Waiver Pilot Program" do not have to have a visa to enter the U.S. as long as they are coming for tourism or business and do not plan to stay more than 90 days.
Currently 25 countries participate in this program, including Argentina, Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
People seeking immigration visas for permanent residence in the U.S. may go about it in many ways. The State Department says that high priority is given to people who already have family in the United States. The highest priority is issued to spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens. The next order of priority is given to siblings, grandparents and other members of the extended family.
Recent changes in U.S. immigration law have also made it easier for highly skilled professionals and business executives to qualify for permanent residency in the United States. But, at the same time, those laws have made it more difficult for unskilled workers to enter.
There is also a lottery which allows people to emigrate to the U.S. from countries with low rates of immigration. The program randomly selects applicants and invites them to immigrate to the United States. Since no ties to relatives or professional skills are required, anyone from a qualifying country can enter the contest. Each year, about 50,000 people are granted permanent residency status in the U.S. through the lottery.
According INS statistics, over 900,000 foreigners immigrated to the U.S. legally last year, while another 300,000 entered illegally or overstayed their visas.
The INS estimates that there are already more than five million illegal aliens living in the United States. The INS says about half of illegal aliens enter legally, as tourists, for example, and then overstay their visas.
Of the top 20 countries listed for having the most illegal aliens in the U.S., only one eastern European nation was cited -- Poland. According to figures obtained from the State Department, as of October 1996, Poland was eight on this list with an estimated 70,000 illegal aliens currently living in the U.S.
Many critics of the U.S. visa policy say that even tighter restrictions should be imposed on visitors and immigrants.
K.C. McAlpin, Deputy Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told RFE/RL that the U.S. already accepts far too many immigrants, most of whom come to America to improve their economic status.
McAlpin said: "It is a paradox. The large influx of immigrants to the U.S. is actually making America a poorer country."
McAlpin says that illegal aliens displace an estimated 659,00 American workers every year at annual cost of $3.5 billion.
He adds: "We think that mass immigration as a way for people to solve their economic problems is over. The U.S. is going to have enormous challenges ahead providing decent education, job opportunities, quality of living, health care, and many other things for the people already here, including the enormous wave of immigrants that have come in the last thirty years."
But Arthur Helton, an attorney and immigration expert for the Open Society Institute in New York, told RFE/RL that immigration actually gives the U.S. a "marginally economic benefit."
Helton cites a recent study on immigration published by the American National Academy of Sciences which indicated that immigration actually provided a benefit of $10 billion a year.
Helton says he believes that current immigration regulations are too strict.
He says: "U.S. [immigration] policy is quite exacting. It is much harder to obtain status, it is much harder to keep status and once someone falls out of status, it is almost impossible to forgive those lapses."
In central and eastern Europe -- where obtaining a U.S. visa is a difficult and often frustrating process -- a fierce debate involving visa requirements is underway.
Since the Madrid summit in July when NATO officials invited Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland to join the alliance, people in the region have openly begun to question the need for visas to a NATO-member country.
The debate is something like this -- if countries are willing and trusting enough to enter into a military alliance, shouldn't they also open their borders to their allies?
The U.S. government says no.
Maria Rudensky, a spokeswoman at the State Department, told RFE/RL that "there is no official link between potential NATO membership and visa eligibility," and that the U.S. is not planning to change visa requirements for the newly invited members.
Besides, Rudensky adds, citizens of NATO-member countries such as Greece, Portugal and Turkey still have to obtain a visa to enter the U.S.
McAlpin agrees with this policy, saying that linking membership in a military alliance to the right of a sovereign country to decide who may or may not enter its borders is "ridiculous."
McAlpin says: "The fact that the United States has a military agreement with Japan should not give U.S. citizens permission to migrate and settle in Japan. This is a fundamental right of any sovereign nation. A nation has the right to determine who and under what conditions people may cross their borders ... Isn't this why governments were set up in the first place? To prevent the unwanted intrusion of people across a national border?"
But Helton says the debate in Europe linking NATO membership to visa eligibility is a good thing.
"I would say that the modern trend is to facilitate free movement not only of capital, but of people. But immigration policy is most resistant to change and in that sense, unfortunately, I think this is really just the very beginning of a long-term debate."