Foreign visits to US drop sharply

With visa scrutiny to be stepped up Friday, some foresee a still bigger falloff in students, researchers, au pairs, and others.

From college students to lab researchers to au pairs, America is normally a magnet for millions of foreigners. But this year it's seeing a dramatic drop-off in the number of visitors.

Both tighter restrictions on getting into this country - and a strong disillusionment with the US abroad - are causing tens of thousands of people worldwide to forgo trips to America. Critics say the decline is evidence of a visa-screening process too restrictive, creating a "fortress America." But supporters see that process as essential to protecting the nation in a post-9/11 world.

Either way, the screening will probably only get tighter. Starting this Friday, the vast majority of the roughly 8 million people who apply for visas each year will be required to have interviews in person at US embassies - even if they have to travel many hours to do so. The result is likely to be, for now anyway, even fewer foreign visitors. Already:

• Foreign attendance at US English- language summer classes - usually about 150,000 - is down some 30 percent.

• The flow of au pairs arriving - about 12,000 a year - has slowed by roughly 10 percent in 2003.

• Hospitals are seeing a continued weakness in international-patient numbers, including a 23 percent drop at the world-famous Mayo Clinic since 2001.

• Overall visa applications dropped from 10.4 million in 2001 to 8.3 million in 2002. Visa approvals fell from 7.5 million in 2001 to 5.7 million in 2002.

That trend could accelerate with start of the in-person interview and other new requirements. "If foreign governments imposed something similar on Americans, we wouldn't like it very much at all," says Michael McCarry, head of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange, a lobbying group in Washington.

Indeed, the new approach is the equivalent of a US citizen - who wanted to visit, say South Africa - having to call the South African Embassy on a 1-900 number to schedule an interview several weeks in advance, travel to Washington, D.C., for the interview, stay overnight in a hotel, fly back home to await the visa's arrival by mail, and only then be allowed to leave on the trip.

Defenders say the policy is one of a growing patchwork of measures that has so far kept America free from any domestic terror attacks since 9/11.

"These guys who are trying to get in here know all the tricks," says Alan Capps, editor of The Journal of Homeland Security, referring to terrorists. "It's a constant game of cat and mouse where we've got to be looking and listening and on our guard all the time." Having across-the-board screenings during the visa process is the only way to ensure that everyone is checked at least once, experts say.

But even the government has allowed that the process isn't as effective or efficient as possible. A recent report by the General Accounting Office noted that only 843 consular officers preside over the 8 million incoming applications. In fact, lines at embassies are often so long that consular staffers only have a couple of minutes to conduct each interview. The State Department has added 39 consular officers this year and will add 40 next year.

For graduate student Jasmin Shakeri, the process didn't work. And now the tri-lingual Iranian native - who's also a part-time soul singer - has given up on coming to America.

Last fall she had secured a spot in a master's program at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., rented an apartment, and even earned a $25,000 scholarship. She had been to the US eight times before. But this time, she was denied a visa.

"I was really upset," she says. "I've known and traveled this country, and now they don't want me." She's finishing her studies in Germany and plans to go to Egypt for vacation this year where, she says, "They want me."

Many US institutions say they're missing out on qualified foreigners who bring cultural enrichment, fresh ideas, and, frequently, lots of cash.

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., visa delays are hurting a once-booming international business. The application used to be a 24-hour process but is now routinely a 3-week wait, says Stephen Gudgell, head of the clinic's international program.

He notes that competitors in other countries, including Germany, are capitalizing on America's newly cumbersome process. They're able to guarantee medical visas in 24 hours. He recalls a young Middle Eastern male - the kind the State Department would watch carefully - who wanted cardiac surgery at Mayo. But rather than waiting three to four weeks for a visa, he went to Germany. "Those situations occur on a regular basis," Mr. Gudgell says.

But until America's system is more effective and efficient, such rejections - and the economic and cultural toll they take - may be the price of a terror-free life, security experts say. "We're not going to shut our doors," says Mr. Capps, "but we are going to have to be a little more stingy in who we let in."

Andreas Tzortzis contributed from Berlin.

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