Can we solve the visa mess?

President Bush seems to have achieved his objective of closing the borders to potential terrorists. Unfortunately, in the process, the bureaucracy charged with this task has also succeeded in shutting out a great number of legitimate visitors to the U.S.

President Bush seems to have achieved his objective of closing the borders to potential terrorists. Unfortunately, in the process, the bureaucracy charged with this task has also succeeded in shutting out a great number of legitimate visitors to the U.S. The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) occurring this month in Chicago is a case in point. China is the largest machine tool market in the world, with nearly twice the consumption of the U.S. this year. It is also developing an indigenous domestic machine tool manufacturing capacity.

In fact, 14 Chinese companies are among the exhibitors at IMTS this year. Or perhaps I should say that 14 Chinese companies had planned to exhibit at IMTS this year. It seems that the State Department denied visas to a number of these prospective exhibitors. Furthermore, U.S. consular officers in China also made it difficult for U.S. companies to bring their Chinese employees over to the U.S. to assist them at IMTS, and to stay afterward to deal with potential Chinese customers.

In these instances, the reason for the visa denials isn't related to fears of industrial espionage — the Chinese employees were already working for the U.S. companies and explaining the technology to potential Chinese customers. It wasn't related to flight or emigration risks either, as most of the Chinese nationals working for U.S. firms have been with those companies for several years.

Such visa denials and delays make little sense, and they certainly do not reflect the stated objectives of the new, tougher visa policy instituted after 9/11 to correct weaknesses in the system. The problem is widespread, and it's not just the machine tool industry that's suffering: Boeing is unable to get pilots into the U.S. for training, and Motorola and General Electric cannot bring engineers over for conferences and projects. Scores of companies, both large and small, are having similar problems.

Along with a coalition of like-minded trade associations and companies, AMT has been working on this problem since July 2002. Unfortunately, I cannot report any significant progress, despite dozens of meetings with apparently sincere but obviously powerless — and in some cases clueless — officials from every agency in the government with jurisdiction over this issue. As far as I can tell from these meetings, an analysis of U.S business's visa problems boils down to each agency blaming the other for not understanding the rules or for slowing down the visa process by sitting on applications. In meeting after meeting, it has been a big circle of blame, with the State Department, the FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Defense portrayed as the villain, depending on the agency with which we met.

All this inaction is not without cost. A recent survey by the visa coalition, of which AMT is part, estimated that visa delays and denials have cost U.S. companies $30 billion over the past two years. And it doesn't help that just as U.S. industry is beginning to recover from its bad reputation over export-license denials, the Chinese are now confronted by endless delays and uncertainty over the visa process. It has been reported that our trade competitors are taking full advantage by warning of the problems likely to be encountered if a Chinese buyer is foolish enough to buy American.

Recently, Congress and the Administration have made numerous promises regarding their willingness to help U.S. manufacturing thrive. An effective initial effort would be to reform the visa process that's already costing U.S. companies business, and consequently endangering American jobs. A significant review of the visa process is in order, but, to date, there has been little serious effort to do so.

Solutions to this dilemma should not be difficult to devise. Initially, what is needed is a clearly articulated policy, with unambiguous guidelines and a sufficient number of well-trained employees to implement it. While I appreciate the goal of keeping terrorists out of the U.S., the current policy is neither clear nor well-executed, and I struggle to understand the confusing and contradictory explanations of what the Government is trying to achieve via these policies. This situation reminds me of the saying, "If you don't know where you're going, you're not likely to get there."

By Dr. Paul Freedenberg Vice President Government Relations AMT—The Association For Manufacturing Technology

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