US pledges to streamline visa procedure





By Mark Huband in London

Financial Times, 17 September 2004

The US administration is looking for ways to address the harsh criticism by business travellers and others of the visa regime introduced after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, the US homeland security chief said yesterday.

Tom Ridge, secretary of the US department of homeland security, told the FT: “We have heard from ambassadors around the world a plea to review what we do and how we do it, so it’s easier and more attractive to come to the United States. We want the welcome mat out.” Criticism of the cumbersome visa application process from US universities and business groups led to a determined effort this year to clear a backlog of applications.

Mr Ridge, visiting three European Union countries to discuss EU concerns about intelligence sharing and problems facing travellers, criticised over-zealous officials at US airports.

“They have not been using their discretion” when dealing with people who may have inadvertently overstayed their visas, he said. The department had stepped up training at leading airports to remind staff that “they’re [in] a service industry”.

Mr Ridge is also considering extending fast-track procedures to foreign business travellers. A pilot scheme launched last month at several airports allows US frequent flyers to avoid some checks. About 10,000 people who travel within the US at least three times a week volunteered to give information about themselves in order to benefit from the scheme, which includes a dedicated queue for screening and exemption from secondary screening and baggage checks.

Mr Ridge said he would discuss the initiative with David Blunkett, home secretary. It is also expected to be on the agenda when Sir David Omand, the government’s security and intelligence co-ordinator, visits Washington later this month. Mr Ridge did not say whether the scheme would be extended to other countries.

Business groups are seeing the pilot scheme and other proposed measures as a sign that the government is becoming more sensitive to criticism of visa restrictions and airport procedures.

Theresa Cardinal-Brown, director of immigration policy at the US chamber of commerce, said: “We have definitely seen and heard greater signs of rationality being brought to the security measures.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.