By Dr. Paul Freedenberg,
Vice President Government Relations
AMT—The Association For Manufacturing Technology
After two and one-half years of almost constant complaints about the business-visa system, particularly in China, the State Department's Consular Service may have realized it needed to show some progress if Secretary-designate Condoleezza Rice was to have any credible response to the inevitable questions about visas during her confirmation hearings. And indeed during those hearings, Secretary Rice noted that she was asked about the visa problems in practically every senator's office she visited before the hearings.
But whatever the motivation, the business-visa process is improving. Most noteworthy, 350 additional officers are now processing visas, both in the United States and in the field. This reduces visa-interview backlogs from as long as two months to a few days (even in most of the consular offices in China). Currently, the biggest problem at some consular posts is a lack of physical space for accommodating the new personnel.
Of importance to those visiting machine tool companies and trade shows, the "Visa Mantis" program's (designed to flag individuals having contact with U.S. high technology, broadly defined) processing times dropped from as much as 75 days — at the nadir of the visa mess — to an average of 13. Also, the State Department has reinstituted multiple-entry business visas, extended a business visa's validity to one year, and streamlined the inter-agency review process with fewer agencies needing to review visas.
But there is still a long way to go, and the overall denial rate remains too high, especially in China. Guidelines there almost automatically deny a business visa to any Chinese employee who is single or under 30. This is arbitrary and unfair to the many applicants having no intention of jumping their visas.
The Technology Alert List (TAL) is another area that needs attention. It assumes that almost any machine tool is high tech and, therefore, automatically places any business-visa applicant visiting a machine tool or factory-automation plant in the "Visa Mantis" review process. This adds a minimum two-week delay. Reviewing and updating the TAL on a yearly basis makes sense, as would coordinating it with the Commerce Department's Commodity Control List to focus the TAL on technologies that are truly high technology.
Perfecting the business-visa system may not happen until the Secretary of State and her consular officials have reflected on the visa structure created piecemeal since 9/11. Until then, the AMT and other members of the business community most affected by the business-visa process are continuing to dialog with the State Department and other agencies, letting them know that the visa system, while improved, is far from perfect. It is going to take more work before that system is no longer a competitive disadvantage to American exporters.
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