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July 2002

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Courtesy of the American Foreign Service Association’s AFSANET we present below Congressional testimony by the Secretary of State on a topic of considerable current interest—the visa-issuance function of the Department of State.

Note that in what appears to be a major concession, he agrees to a proposed Department of Homeland Security taking responsibility for visa policies. He considers it "absolutely essential," however, that the Department of State (in the persons of its Foreign Service officers abroad) continue, as always, to have actual visa issuance authority.—Ed.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell

Excerpts from Testimony before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, Washington, DC - July 11, 2002

"President Bush's proposal for a Department of Homeland Security shows the way ahead, as America does everything within its power to protect its citizens at home and abroad. The President has also proposed that this new Department assume responsibility for the policy guidance and the regulation that's required with respect to visa issuance."

"As you know, our first line of defense in protecting ourselves from those who would come to our shores are our diplomats at our consulates and other locations around the world, where we issue visas to people to come to America. The United States is ready to make sure that our visa system is a strong one, a secure one, but at the same time, one that encourages people to come to the United States, once we have made sure that they are the right kinds of people to come into our nation, they are not coming in to conduct any kind of activity which would be injurious to any American."

"Under the new proposal, the Secretary of Homeland Security will determine what those policies should be. The Secretary of State, the Department of State, is willing, anxious to give all of the authority that we currently have with respect to visa issuance, the regulations, to the Secretary of Homeland Security. That's where it resides. He will have access to all of the intelligence information, law enforcement information, and he will make those policy judgments with respect to who should be authorized to receive a visa at our many visa issuing facilities around the world. We will have some foreign policy input into those judgments, but I yield all of that authority willingly to the Secretary of Homeland Security."

"I consider it absolutely essential, however, that the actual issuance of the visas remain with the Department of State. We have the experience, the training, the language skills and the dedicated people to perform this mission. The State Department represents the United States at more than 200 posts around the world, where it carries out its responsibilities for conducting foreign policy, promoting trade, cooperating with foreign law enforcement authorities, and providing consular services to Americans abroad. Our consular officers are also responsible for the issuance of visas to foreign nationals, but they have many other responsibilities. And it is difficult to shred out simply the visa-issuing responsibility from these other consular activities that take place at our various facilities."

"Most visa applicants want to come here for legitimate purposes: business, tourism, education. We want them to come to our schools. We want them to come to the United States and visit our wonderful tourist attractions. We want them to participate in health care activities and to come use our hospitals and other facilities."

"However, some seek visas for criminal and other awful purposes, including terrorist acts. So we have been working hard to make sure that only those who mean us no ill come to this country. There is no entitlement to a visa. The judgment is that you are not entitled to a visa unless you can establish you’re coming here for a legitimate purpose."

"Since September 11th, we have done a lot to tighten up our system. The most important thing we have done, really, is to increase the size of the database available to our consular officers around the world. We have worked closely with our intelligence agencies and especially with the Justice Department and the FBI to double the size of the database so that when a young consular officer overseas puts a name of an applicant into that database, it comes back here and it gets the widest dissemination so it's bounced against all the databases. We can do an even better job of that, and I'm very pleased at the level of cooperation that has existed between the State Department, the Justice Department, the CIA and all of the other relevant agencies to make sure that we give the broadest screening to this name before that consular officer then makes a judgment as to whether or not an interview is required, or whether or not he should just be shut down out of hand; we don't want this person here."

"And so I can assure you we're doing everything possible to tighten our procedures. We put in place a new visa called a Lincoln Visa, which I just have a sample of here, using the latest technology. The finest experts we have in our government have tried to modify this and alter it to see if they could get through this new system, and they have failed. We're doing the same thing with our passports, all using digitized data. This is my passport, and I can assure you I have one of the newest and the best, to make sure that we are protecting ourselves."

"Our consular officers do a great job. Do we have problems from time to time? Have our efforts been defeated from time to time? From time to time, do we have someone who does not live up to their responsibilities? Yes, that has occurred. But when we find it, we go after it, as we are doing in the current case at Doha. But do we also have officers who do a brilliant job of spotting someone who is trying to hide, trying to defeat the system? Yes, they do. The gentleman who was arrested recently, Mr. Padilla, was spotted by a consular officer who found something unusual about this particular applicant, reported it to the regional security officer. That person, being vigilant, reported it back here. We then contacted the CIA, the FBI and others and found enough about Mr. Padilla so that when he arrived in the United States, we were waiting for him and he was arrested and taken into custody."

"These are dedicated young men and women around the world. They have a career path, they have a career track, they have the language skills. They know all of the other consular activities that take place, that have to take place in our embassies. In 2001 alone, we adjudicated 10 million nonimmigrant visa applications and allowed 7.5 million visas to be issued, allowing these people to come into our country."

"So I want to assure the Members of this Committee that we take our responsibilities in the State Department and our consular responsibilities with utmost seriousness, and we are seeing what else we need to do within the Consular Service, within the Consular Affairs Office at the State Department, to make sure that we are doing everything to guard our nation, to guard our people, but at the same time, to make sure we remain a nation of openness, a welcoming nation, that America that we all love and the world respects."

 

July 23, 2002



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