Visa policy a tragedy in the making, groups say

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States risks losing its global technology edge because tighter visa rules since 2001 have made it too hard for foreigners to visit, U.S. business and educational groups said on Thursday.

“We’re telling a whole generation of foreigners that they’re not welcome here -- as businessmen, as employees, as students, as tourists. And we’re doing that at precisely the time that competition for talent is the most intense globally,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, whose members include such big U.S. companies as Boeing and Microsoft.

He warned the world’s largest economy could lose its lead as a center of global innovation over the next 20 years because U.S. entry requirements are discouraging foreigners from visiting the United States and encouraging companies to relocate operations overseas.

“That’s going to be a tragedy for us,” Reinsch said. “If you can’t get your engineers here, you build your lab in Shanghai” or some other foreign location, said Reinsch, a former U.S. Commerce Department official.

He was speaking at a briefing with other proponents of U.S. visa program reform, including the Association of International Educators, the Heritage Foundation, the Coalition for Employment Through Exports and the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange.

Mandatory interview requirements have produced lengthy waits for many foreigner to obtain visas. Potential visitors often have to travel long distances to a U.S. consulate in their country before winning approval to visit the United States, the groups said.

Many foreign travelers also are mistreated at the point of entry into the United States and discover they have been erroneously listed as a security threat because of their name or physical appearance, Reinsch said.

“When it happens five or six times (to the same individual), you wonder why the government can’t get its act together and figure this out,” Reinsch said.

The groups urged a number of reforms they said would make it easier for foreigners to visit the United States without jeopardizing national security.

Those include expanding the number of countries whose citizens can visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa from the current 27.

Congress also should reverse a 2004 law and give U.S. consulates the discretion to waive the personal interview requirement, based on a risk assessment, they said.

Another proposal would create a “trusted traveler” program to expedite approval for frequent visitors willing to submit to extensive background checks in advance, the groups said.