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U.S.: Stricter Visa Rules May Prove Self-Defeating

After the terrorist attacks of 2001, the U.S. government realized it had to tighten its visa requirements to improve security. But some have expressed concern the government's approach has gone beyond creating a mere inconvenience for foreigners wishing to work or study in the United States.

Washington, 11 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Increasingly tighter visa restrictions for foreigners planning to work or study in the United States may have a negative effect on the U.S. economy and -- indirectly -- on national security, according to advocacy groups for immigrants and educators.

The latest round of immigration guidelines went into effect on 1 August. Officials at U.S. consulates around the world are now required to use personal interviews and security checks to scrutinize virtually all foreigners before issuing them work or student visas.

Such restrictions are likely to be a great inconvenience -- or worse -- to students accepted to study at U.S. universities or workers hired for jobs in the country, especially to those hired for temporary or seasonal jobs.

Those already being affected include seasonal agricultural workers from neighboring Mexico and countries farther south in Central America, according to Cesar Orantes, the publisher of the on-line newsletter "U.S. & Overseas Immigration News" from Washington. Orantes's group advocates a more open U.S. immigration policy.

Orantes told RFE/RL that while the United States is trying to keep itself free of terrorists from the Middle East and Asia, it is having the unintended effect of making it difficult for immigrants from Latin American countries to enter -- or stay -- in order to work.

This affects not only workers, Orantes said, but also the United States itself. He explained that many of these seasonal agricultural workers are illegal immigrants who are prepared to do hard labor for very little money.

According to Orantes, the United States could suffer economically if such illegal immigrants are kept out -- and if those that are already in the country are sent home. "What happens is that the United States will have no people to harvest the fruits and vegetables at the price that [illegal immigrants can], because the people that [are] working in here -- most of them illegal immigrants -- are working on a very, very low salary. They will have to almost double the salary [for legal workers]. It will be expensive to the United States," he said.

Further, Orantes said, a tougher immigration policy could have a similar effect on Mexico. Bush once was the governor of Texas, which shares a long border, and much commerce, with Mexico. Since becoming president in early 2001, Bush has sought to improve U.S.-Mexican relations, in large part by easing immigration restrictions on Mexicans. But the war on terrorism and the re-evaluation of U.S. immigration policy has stalled that effort.

Orantes said that to tighten visa and other immigration rules would reduce the amount of money that Mexicans working in the United States send back to their families in their native land. According to Orantes, these payments, which he called "remittances," are an important part of the Mexican economy. "The United States' tightening of the laws regarding immigrants is in effect hurting the United States, and the economy of other [countries] will suffer through the lack of remittances," he said.

The stricter visa restrictions also interfere with foreign students, faculty, and researchers hoping to pursue their careers in America, according to Barry Toiv, the director of public affairs for the Association of American Universities, which promotes U.S. research universities.

Toiv said his organization believes it is important to encourage what he called an "open flow" of students and scholars from abroad, not only to help them and their countries, but also to help the United States itself. "When they [today's foreign students] become national leaders, whether it's in politics or in business or other fields of endeavor, they're going to be prepared to work with us and have an understanding of us, and that can only be a good thing," he said.

Toiv said that because of tightened visa restrictions in the United States, foreign students accepted for study at U.S. universities experience what he called "serious delays" at the beginning of the academic year. According to Toiv, a delay of only a few weeks is essentially a denial of an entire 15- to 18-week semester because a student cannot be expected to make up critical early work.

With even tighter security now, Toiv said there is a risk that the delays will persist this year. But he said the State Department has directed consulates around the world to make interviews with students, researchers, and faculty members a top priority to minimize delays.

"The verdict's not in yet. We're into August, and of course fall semesters are going to be beginning very soon, this month and in September, for most universities, and we won't really know for at least a month or more what kind of problems we've had," Toiv said.

Toiv said his organization appreciates the government's need to protect the American people from terrorist attacks, and he said American schools are doing all they can to operate within the security strictures, rather than resist them. "We fully recognize the importance of maintaining very high security, particularly of course in the wake of 9/11 [the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001], and our higher-education institutions have cooperated and worked very closely with the government to try and make sure that the free flow of people is compatible with national security," he said.

Toiv said the real problem is money. The State Department does not have the budget to hire staff to process the visa and conduct the interviews quickly enough. Toiv said his organization is among several education-advocacy associations urging the U.S. Congress to provide funding to hire the staff necessary to ensure a proper balance between national security and the free flow of ideas into -- and out of -- the United States.