U.S. Visa Applicants Face More Scrutiny

Those who have struggled through the arduous visa application process in the past may find it hard to believe, but the U.S. Embassy is now being even "more vigilant" in its review of Russian applicants for non-immigrant visas, especially students, said Consul General James Warlick.

With the help of its worldwide computer database, the consular section is examining more closely the 200-plus applications for non-immigrant visas it receives daily. It is also lengthening interviews and altering the questioning of applicants it suspects pose a security threat.

Individuals with possible ties to organized crime and students who are applying for a second round of study are undergoing the most scrutiny, Warlick said in a telephone interview Thursday.

"We're taking a great deal of time to talk to applicants about the activity they have planned in the U.S.," Warlick said. "We're not simply taking their answers. We're pressing them on what they'll be doing and who they'll be meeting with. ... Given the abuse of student visas around the world, we're no longer considering applications for student visas as routine. We're making sure that those who apply intend to study."

Most of the suspected hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks entered the United States legally, including one who had entered with a student visa. Statements from Washington suggest visa procedures will become even stricter.

The U.S. State Department has instructed consular offices worldwide to review and strengthen their procedures. Consular offices can now access the FBI's criminal database, as a tool for adjudicating visa applications, through a provision of the Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism law that was signed by President George W. Bush last month, said Christopher Lamora, a spokesman for the department's bureau of consular affairs. And the U.S. Congress is considering dozens of bills that would tighten visa application processes.

At the Consular Office at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, closer scrutiny of applicants for non-immigrant visas has resulted in lengthened and more intense interviews. In one case, the office "called an applicant back several times for interviews lasting 30 minutes," said Warlick.

The office is being very strict with applicants for student visas, especially those who have received them before, due to suspicions of past abuse.

As usual, applicants must submit a letter of acceptance from the academic institution they will attend and proof that they can afford the education, Warlick said.

But applicants who have received student visas in the past must provide evidence of their previous studies, such as a transcript from the institution.

"We have run into cases of people who had student visas and were in the U.S. but weren't studying," Warlick said. "We see that repeatedly."

In the 1999-2000 academic year, 514,723 visas were issued for international students studying in the United States, The Associated Press reported Thursday. Warlick said 1,400 study visas went to Russians.

President Bush has said that he wants to track foreigners who overstay their visas and to keep tabs on students and other visitors so "that they fulfill the purpose of their application."