New scrutiny delays visas, rankles business

Tourism, education, and the corporate world balk at wait time for visas as INS conducts background checks.

Kathy Wilson waited at the bus station like she does every May 1 – the start of her busy season at the bed-and-breakfast she and her husband run in Saugatuck, Mich.

She was there to pick up 10 Jamaicans who would spend the summer helping her cook and clean. When the bus arrived and her help did not, she knew something was wrong.

"I thought their temporary work visas had already been processed, but when I got home and checked, the process hadn't even begun," says Ms. Wilson.

The visa crackdown since Sept. 11 – which includes slower processing and changes in rules – is having a profound effect on many segments of society, from education to healthcare to agriculture. While businesses are crying foul, saying the economy's been hurt enough by the events of 9/11, the government says extra care – if not time – is critical at a time like this.

It's all part of the nation's wrangling over immigration policy – a debate that is sure to resurface in even more complex and varied ways.

Policies aimed at making the nation more secure, have an array of negative side effects. For example:

• A visa-waiver program that brings in foreign doctors to work in severely understaffed rural hospitals has been halted.

• A slowdown in the processing of temporary work visas – for both skilled and unskilled workers – is causing all types of businesses, from resorts to high-tech industries, to stumble.

• Universities can no longer allow foreign students to begin classes before their student visas are processed.

"I think businesses and citizens and foreign travelers are willing to endure some level of inconvenience," says Ben Johnson, associate director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. "But there's a difference between inconvenience and institutional paranoia. We need to make sure we don't become afraid of immigration."

He says the policies that try to distinguish between bad actors and good actors is the correct way of making the country more secure. But policies that "impose blanket restrictions in the hopes that a bad actor will be inconvenienced is the wrong way to go about it."

As an example of that, Mr. Johnson points to the most recent proposal in Washington, which would change the length of time certain tourists could spend in the US. It says that if an airport INS inspector can't make a determination as to why someone should stay longer than 30 days – whether because of language barriers or document problems – than they will automatically be limited to 30 days or less.

Tourists from the 28 visa-waiver countries (mainly Western Europe and Japan) will not be affected, and will be allowed to stay up to six months. Those tourists from non-waiver countries number almost 1 million and contribute $2 billion to the US economy.

Tourism industry officials are especially upset about the proposal because they feel they've been the hardest hit since Sept. 11.

"This is a critical time for the US travel industry," says Rick Webster, director of governmental affairs at the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington. "We are willing to work at enhancing national security, but at the same time we should be improving our economic security."

Further, says John Gay, vice president of governmental affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Association in Washington: "No industry has been hurt worse by the terrorist attacks than travel and tourism – and we're still feeling it. This latest proposal has the potential for serious harm to the industry without any meaningful gains in security."

For it's part, the INS says the proposal has been blown out of proportion, and will have minimal impact on tourism. "The vast majority of cases ... will have absolutely no problem," says Chris Bently, an INS spokesman.

The deadline for submitting comments on the proposal to the INS ended last week and the agency will make a decision soon.

So while some hotels wonder if they are going to have to lay off summer workers, others are wondering where to get them. A shortage of workers locally, coupled with the slowdown in processing of temporary work visas, has made the tourism industry grimace once again.

"If you're a big company and your workers arrive a month or two late, you might be OK," says Mr. Gay. "But if you're a seasonal B&B and you've got three or four months to make an income, a month or two late can really hurt."

But the government says a slower process should be understandable right now.

"Since 9/11, the INS has been under a lot of pressure. They now have to do much more extensive criminal background checks and have a whole new database to become accustomed to," says Derri Thomas, an assistant US attorney in the eastern district of Michigan. She argued the government's position in a recent lawsuit brought by 13 hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-related businesses in Michigan (the plaintiffs include Kathy Wilson and her husband in Saugatuck).

They are trying to force the INS into quicker action. At a recent hearing, the judge denied the plaintiffs' request for an emergency order compelling the INS to immediately process their visas.

The INS has assured Ms. Wilson that six applications are in the works and she should have those workers in two weeks. In the meantime, she says she is paying for "premium help" to get her through.

"I don't mind paying, but I'm having to teach new people every week. It's very distracting and time intensive, and it takes away from what I'm supposed to do."

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