Consequences for Visa Processing

From the perspective of a consular officer, the fallout from 9/11 was immediate and consequential.

First, there was an attempt to identify those visa officers who had issued visas to the 9/11 hijackers. This caused a lot of anxiety and fear given calls to hold people accountable. These officers had done nothing wrong and adjudicated the visa applications of the hijackers based on the best information available. As we quickly learned, and later was covered extensively in the 9/11 Commission report, information about these hijackers was out there -- it existed. It just wasn't shared, so among other things, the names were never in the databases which are automatically checked as part of the visa process.

Secondly, the State Department came very close to losing the visa function to the Department of Homeland Security. There were all sorts of nasty accusations, the gist of which was that State was only interested in issuing visas and expediting travel to the U.S., with national security being a secondary and minor consideration. This effort failed in the end, although the Department of Homeland Security was given responsibility for visa policy.

Thirdly, visa screening became much more rigorous, thanks to requirements that various agencies share their databases or take part in the screening and to the development of biometrics capabilities.

In the beginning, there were all kinds of delays in trying to determine if the applicant was a match against the database or whether whatever the match was for merited a visa denial. Multiple agencies could be involved in this effort. It can still be a lengthy process but the tools available to consular officers and interagency partners have greatly improved, as has the quality of information in the databases.

Most people would probably assume that Muslims were the primary target of these enhanced screening but there were others caught up in delays as well.

One group I remember well were Chinese fiancées of American citizens. The U.S. citizens were very persistent in phoning anyone they could at overseas consular sections, the State Department and other government agencies to figure out the status of their fiancées' visa applications. I understood their frustration but we had little to no ability to get other agencies to address the name checks. I remember spending hours on the phone with these guys, who were very organized.

enhanced screenings were all part of how the State Department saw its role in visa adjudications: Secure Borders, Open Doors. We need to have a robust way to identify and prevent people who want to want to carry out nefarious activities that are harmful to us all, but we also want to remain open to the world culturally, economically, commercially, and politically, and an important part of that is encouraging and facilitating legitimate travel to the U.S. I've thought a lot about whether we get this balance right. In general, I think we do.

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