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Faster, Safer, and Smarter: A Modern Visa System for the United States

The U.S. visa system is still not effectively focusing resources on those who pose a threat to our country. More than a decade after 9/11, foreign tourists, business travelers, students, and temporary workers presenting low security risks face the same cumbersome and unpredictable procedural hurdles as high-risk applicants. Despite commendable efforts by the State Department to speed up visa issuance, only modest progress has been made in translating the tremendous technological advances in homeland security to the visa system to ensure that accurate determinations are made in a timely manner.

Poorly designed visa security procedures coupled with a record high volume of visa applicants have resulted in chronic procedural delays in the largest sending countries, including China, India, and Brazil, though increased staffing and other initiatives have helped reduce interview wait times in recent months. These delays cost the United States tens of billions of dollars annually in lost tourism and foreign investment, and hurt U.S. diplomacy by discouraging people from seeing U.S. society and culture firsthand. The United States is competing with other countries for these same visitors, and the price of an inefficient U.S. visa system is high.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security should utilize existing technologies to implement better visa procedures at lower cost. Computerized screening has been developed for identifying potentially risky goods imported into the United States; the same capabilities can be used for sorting people wishing to travel here. These technologies will decrease the government’s dependence on human vetting of visa applicants through face-to-face interviews and manual background checks. Low-risk travelers—the vast majority of visa applicants—would be processed quickly, freeing up consular officers for vetting higher-risk travelers. The result would be a system that better protects security while welcoming millions of people. Read the full CFR report – Faster, Safer, and Smarter

Edward Alden blogs on border security, visa policy and immigration issues. Read More