It seems like ages since the federal government transformed the rules on when and how foreign citizens apply for visas to enter the United States. Actually, the most dramatic changes occurred in the summers of 2003 and 2004.

In 2003, the government dramatically restricted the authority of American consular officers to waive the appearance of visa applicants for an in-person interview. In 2004, the U.S. State Department stopped “revalidating” (renewing previously issued but expired) nonimmigrant visas from a central processing facility in the United States. More changes have followed. Now all applicants must submit the visa application on-line (all the better to store and mine data and facilitate internal record-keeping) using a woefully designed and often nonfunctioning software program, the Form DS-160.

The requirement to interview all but a few visa applicants and the elimination of domestic revaidations have caused substantial disruptions to U.S. businesses, universities, families and globetrotting individuals. Quite predictably as well, understaffed U.S. consular posts have developed waiting times until visa interviews can be scheduled. The personal interview requirement has also persuaded many would-be travelers from countries not allowed in the visa-waiver program to forgo trips to the United States (because they are unwilling or unable to travel up to a thousand miles to a U.S. consular post in their home country to appear for a personal interview). This has resulted in the loss of the substantial dollars these people would otherwise spend. The elimination of revalidations has visited hardships on foreign students, foreign workers and U.S. businesses who cannot afford to risk the possibility of visa refusal overseas or prolonged delays caused by “security advisory opinions” and clearances.

No doubt the changes were made to enhance U.S. national security and improve governmental efficiency. But are they the best ways to achieve these goals? Can technology be used more intelligently to preserve our safety while also encouraging other national interests in creating jobs, promoting exports, achieving foreign policy goals and encouraging tourism? Can we apply fresh thinking to our foreign-policy and national-interest concerns to improve our visa procedures so that they foster these goals?

I’ve long advocated that visa interviews be videorecorded in order to preserve data and images that would be useful to enhance homeland security and also make sure that consular officers conducting interviews (whose images would not be recorded under my proposal) might be induced by the sentinel effect to be more courteous and fair.

An even better idea would be to employ secure videoconferencing technology. Fortunately, the House of Representatives has included in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (H.R. 2410) — now awaiting Senate action — a pilot program of videoconferenced interviews:


(a) Pilot Program- The Secretary of State may develop and conduct a 2-year pilot program for the processing of tourist visas using secure remote videoconferencing technology as a method for conducting visa interviews of applicants.

(b) Report- Not later than 1 year after initiating the pilot program under subsection (a) and again not later than 3 months after the conclusion of the 2-year period referred to in such subsection, the Secretary of State shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on such pilot program. Each such report shall assess the efficacy of using secure remote videoconferencing technology as a method for conducting visa interviews of applicants, including any effect such method may have on an interviewer’s ability to determine an applicant’s credibility and uncover fraud, and shall include recommendations on whether or not the pilot program should be continued, broadened, or modified.

When the idea was first broached in 2006 (but ultimately not pursued), one Bush Administration official reportedly said that the use of digital videoconferencing technology “could be the biggest qualitative change in the way we handle visas in 150 years – it’s a generational shift.”

For its part, the Senate is encouraging new thinking on visa application procedures (ironically, as part of an effort to facilitate change within the Islamic Republic of Iran). S. 3454 (the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011) contains Section 1234. If enacted, Section 1234 would perhaps address the “single-entry” visa policy that dissuades Iranian students in the United States from returning home (because a new student visa is required before they can return and resume studies). Section 1234 provides:

(8) STUDENT VISAS- With respect to student visa policy, an assessment of opportunities for the United States and Iran to engage in educational exchanges, including– (A) opportunities for expanding educational exchanges for Iranian students to study in the United States; and (B) the feasibility and advisability of expanding the number and types of visas issued to Iranians for educational exchanges.

These changes, if adopted, would be transformative. The visa application process should facilitate rather than impede our national interests and foreign policy objectives. We deserve better. The current system must be improved.