Visa Schmisa

by Maria on September 9, 2003

Next month I plan to go to Washington D.C. for a fellowship event of the 21st Century Trust. But with the new visa rules to the US, I can’t simply rely on being white and English-speaking to get me through immigration without a scratch. Luckily, citizens of countries belonging to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) won’t need a visa as long as they have a machine readable passport. My passport isn’t ‘machine readable’, so from 1st October I’ll need to either have a new passport or apply for visa.

It took a half hour’s study of the website of the US Embassy in Paris for me to determine that, yes, I probably do need a visa to travel to Washington D.C. next month but, no, I didn’t really know what kind of visa it would be, and no, it wasn’t clear at all how long it would take. Also, I’d have to surrender my passport to the embassy straight away, and probably wouldn’t get it back for the 6 weeks between now and my US trip, and I mightn’t even get the visa in time. In the meantime, I would have to cancel other essential business trips (not really an option), possibly give up a morning’s work to go sit in the embassy and wait to be interviewed (to determine I’m not a terrorist – they can tell from the eyes), and pony up almost 100 euro for the privilege. If I had any questions, I could call the number and just ask – at E14.50 a call. Oh, and if the Embassy mistakenly debits my account twice or puts the 100 euro application fee in the wrong place, that’s just tough. I won’t be getting it back.

So, to summarise. In order to receive permission to travel to the US (which I of course accept is within a sovereign country’s right to grant or refuse), I would have to hand over a significant amount of cash and my passport, wait an indeterminate amount of time, cancel other work in the meantime, and still have no certainty that I’d get my passport and visa back in time to make my trip at the end of October.

Or, alternatively, I could just phone up the Irish Embassy (free and gratis, except for the price of a local call), have a nice chat with a pleasant woman from Donegal who would promise to pop into the post today the information and application forms for a machine readable passport (19 euro) and a replacement passport for me to use while they process my new one(19 euro). We might even chat about the heavy showers we had in the city last night.

So simple, there must be a catch. Here it is; the machine readable passport will allow my movements to be tracked and recorded by governments other than my own, and governments that have no concept of data privacy. So if I ever inadvertently get on a watch list (and it’s not hard, as US anti-war protesters have discovered), I’ll have precious little chance of getting off it.

Machine readable passports certainly have their uses. But they’re also the thin end of the wedge to demands by the US government that EU citizens put biometric identifiers on their passports within the next couple of years. Some people think this is a great idea. Already, businessmen are lining up at Heathrow to have their irises scanned instead of waving their passports and visas. The convenience is fantastic. Until your unique identifier is associated with some bad data. If your data key is your iris, try revoking that.

So there you have it. The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for owners of machine readable passports lets you avoid the whole administrative hoopla, expense and uncertainty of actually applying for a visa. I’d have to be insane not to trade off a bit of my privacy for all that convenience. But surely that’s not the only trade off here? Aren’t I also trading off my privacy for some extra security?

Applying for the visa means going through checks by the USG, which is probably why it costs so much. Having a machine readable passport simply means that my own government has issued me a travel document with a very long number written on it. So, unless we are to presume that citizens of VWP countries are negligable terrorist risks, there’s no overall gain in security. What VWP offers, going forward, is a better means to track citizens’ movements. It doesn’t, to my knowledge, actually screen anyone. It has some potential to reduce the threat of terrorism in the future – by creating a means to capture the personal data of the entire travelling population – but it doesn’t pay off now, and we have no guarantee (or even claim) that it will in the future.

Like everyone else, I just hope it works. Most people will agree that the consequences of a false negative in airline security can have far more devastating consequences than a false positive. But I keep wondering, if the trade-offs truly are worthwhile, then why aren’t governments more honest about what they really are?



Doc 09.09.03 at 1:14 pm

Those visa changes have been delayed a full year (see today’s WaPo).

It’s the biometric data crap that’s going to get messy if it’s ever put into place.

But the fingerprinting/photo of every non-US passport/greencard holder is still starting 1/1/04 I believe.


eric 09.09.03 at 2:23 pm

Why aren’t they more honest about it?

Because chronic whiners and other sorts would have a field day (like you are now) complaining and sniping about how inconvienent everything is.

Got any better ideas?


schmeric 09.09.03 at 2:51 pm

Oh!!! Now I get it. The less people “whine” about privacy and bad data collection, the safer air travel becomes.

Collecting useless information has two problems. Most important, it gets in the way of actual security, by distracting agents from more important issues. It’s the old joke about the guy who lost a quarter three blocks away, but is searching under the lamp-post because the light is better there. When you don’t know what you’re doing, quantify an irrelevant task, and then do a large quantity of it.

It’s been shown again and again that the big problem with the 9/11 attacks wasn’t lack of information so much as a lack of communication, and too much squelching of regional initiative. Biometric information isn’t going to do a damn thing to help, all it will do is give even more useless tasks to assign to the local agents, giving them even less time and support to pursue their own investigations. This makes us all much, much more at risk than before, with much, much less excuse.

Also (and some might consider this more important) central information collection lends itself to all manner of abuses. No prudent person would volunteer for this, although some people are willing to volunteer others for it, like those shifty furriners.

Then there is the privacy and dignity thing, which some of us care about, even when it is inconvenient. Although in this case, Maria is being asked to pay large sums of money, and endure inconvenience, for the privilege of surrendering her privacy and control of her quite-valuable-on-a-free-market data.

Kind of pales besides waiting in line to renew a driver’s license, don’t it?


claude tessier 09.09.03 at 3:29 pm

There are about a dozen illegal Mexicans living on the next block from me. They even hang a Mexican flag on the front porch!

If they could come here so can you. Show some ingenuity and quit whining!



PG 09.09.03 at 4:18 pm

Hmm. I suppose they want to keep the convenience of Visa Express while making it sufficiently intrusive as to reassure conservatives.


nick sweeney 09.09.03 at 10:24 pm

Be thankful, Maria, that you’re not a male between the ages of 16 and 45. Those falling into that subset of the group no longer entitled to travel on the Visa Waiver Program have to fill in the delightful Form DS-157, which demands:

  • Mother and father’s full name.
  • All the countries you have entered in the last ten years (with year)
  • Your last two employers (with address, telephone number and supervisor name)
  • All professional, social and charitable organisations to which you belong or have belonged, contribute or have contributed or with which you work (or have worked)
  • All educational institutions you attend or have attended (excluding elementary school)
  • A list of specific locations you will visit in the US
  • So, men without machine readable passports have to provide the kind of biographical and location-tracking data that a machine-readable passport might. And then some.

    Wonderful. Of course, most Americans don’t have a clue about this, and most don’t care: US immigration law, and its weary implementation, is an area of policy that natural-born Americans don’t have to address (unless they marry a non-American) and that naturalised Americans are glad to put behind them.

    As Danny says:

    this is what [visa applicants] will learn of this country: that it requires that a large amount of biographical data be handed over to its government. It obligatorily requires anyone to reveal any and all organisations, political or social, of which they are a member. That its government also demands to know the location of those within its borders, and the precise time of their movements. And that men and women are to be treated differently.

    I think it’s one thing to require visitors to a country to obey its laws, and comply with its values. But to propose a set of rules like this that seem to me to represent the very opposite of those values – well, that seems to be not only wrong, but a strong danger sign.

    I keep on asking: if this bureacracy, this data collection, this process is necessary or even useful, why is it not applied to all Americans too? Or, if the administration is only worried about foreign terrorists, all visitors?

    …The point at which the Constitution becomes little other than a crucifix one waves at powerful figures who have no understanding or sympathy with the values it represents, is a point I believe it at risk of becoming useless, even to those few who can still shelter behind it.


    Doug 09.10.03 at 8:22 am

    Ok, I’m down with the complaints. And we’ll stipulate that immigration authorities the world over are a pain in the ass. (In my own experience, the East Germans were friendlier than the Brits, and our friends at Friedrichstrasse were the ones who invited me into a small room and asked me to empty out my pockets and so forth.)

    But America has a terrorist problem, and it has that problem in a way that no other country has. Killing Americans and blowing things up in America has a greater symbolic value than doing the same things in other countries. If you hate the current world order – whether that hatred is flavored left, right or center – America is your target.

    Given these facts, what should be done? There’s some smart folks here, who obviously care about the issue. How about some ideas?


    Maria 09.10.03 at 2:43 pm

    Point well taken Doug.

    I think there are two essential problems. Firstly, US customs and immigration policy has had to become predominantly a security policy. It’s much more immediately important to keep the bad guys out of America than to let the good guys in. (i.e. false negatives versus false positives). But border control and immigration have other purposes too; economic development and trade, humanitarian, and strategic uses to name a few. Emphasising security is essential right now, but doing so means the other purposes may suffer. These are costs most people are happy enough to bear, as long as the security benefits are real.

    Secondly, and as Nick Sweeney says, the people who are at the receiving end of these policies are, by definition, not US voters. That means there’s not the oversight and public interest in this subject as in, for example, health or education policy.

    So I think there is a disconnect between the formulation and implementation of policy in this area, and a rigorous analysis of its effectiveness. The objectives are muddied, and that ends up in policies which nominally trade off one value against another (privacy versus security), but when you look closely do something entirely different.

    But you wanted answers, not more criticism. I don’t have an answer, but I do have a start. Begin with a clear set of objectives, prioritise them, design the policy accordingly to privilege one over another, and be straight that the system does what it says it does and for the reasons you state it does.

    Right now, US border control seems to be all inconvenience and no increased security. Seems to me like everyone’s a loser.


    Daragh McDowell 09.10.03 at 5:38 pm

    The glass in the window by my downstairs telephone has been shattered for over three months now. Why? In a fit of rage over the latest delay suffered in my Visa application, and thus my holiday to New York, I smacked my fist against it a little too hard. The reason for all this torment? After printing my DS-2019 application for a Visa with CAN as my place of birth on top, the State department changed its own rules for embassies over the world, requiring the full CANADA be printed. This lost me at least 2-3 years of life from stress, and delayed my holiday a few days, though I suppose in the grand scheme of things was just a niggle.

    If getting the J1 was a nuisance, then getting my Social Security Number after the fact was nothing short of a trial. It took 8 weeks for my number to be supplied, and thus I recieved my first paycheck from work two weeks before I left. I know German students there who have been trying for SSN’s since February. Here’s my problem: The SS Number makes me instantly a lot more trackable by the government. They have a record of where I’m working, my address, and precisely how much money I’m earning etc. I couldn’t even get my job to make me a key to the office until I got it. Why then, the delay in supplying me one? There was no problem in my setting up a bank account into which money could be transferred (thanks Mom and Dad) for living expenses, just as Mohammed Atta and his ilk sustained themselves in the States. All this being half-in, half-out of the system for so long didn’t keep me from getting into the US, or obtaining money to sustain myself there with. However, it did keep me underneath the government’s radar screen, and made me harder to track (except perhaps through information supplied voluntarily to my Visa’s sponsor, with no form of verification supplied.) The Bush administration seems to be wildly flailing about on its immigration policy, wanting to do ‘something’ but having no clue as to what that is.


    nick sweeney 09.10.03 at 5:45 pm

    Again, point taken, Doug. I think that there are a number of structural problems with US immigration and visa policy, and this is from experience of travel and actually applying for a visa.

    There are two issues: air security and immigration policy.

    The lurch from pre-9/11 to post-9/11 air security is bizarre, to say the least. As a Brit, I was used to many restrictions: no non-fliers past security; longer check-in times and so on. By contrast, the business prerogatives of domestic flight in the US seemed to mitigate against safe flying. In fact, I remember thinking that Logan airport’s security was shambolic back in 2000, and when I heard that one of the hijacked planes departed from Boston, it was like a nightmare coming true.

    Now, though, TSA policy seems knee-jerk, random, and without well-researched objectives: designed to create the illusion of security by inconvenience, rather than actual security.

    Now, to immigration. The INS has been woefully underfunded, given the popularity of the US with immigrants. As I mentioned, and Maria reiterated, this is mainly because there are no votes to be gained from addressing those problems, since immigrants don’t vote and naturalised Americans never want to think of the INS again.

    A big problem with the current move towards the collation of biographical data and location-tracking (not to mention the attempt to impose biometric passports upon the world) is that it creates unnecessary barriers to entry for those who want to work legitimately within the system. (One could also note that the US is famous in the general un-passportedness of its populace.)

    To quote Danny O’Brien again, when discussing his own visa bureacracy and the ’round-up’ in California:

    If you come from Iran, or you come from Syria, Iraq or the Sudan you know what to do in this situation. Don’t ever come forward when the government calls your name again. Hide. Because in those countries, such sudden, unexpected, disproportionate and ethnic-group specific roundups (of just the men, by the way, not the women) by government are usually a prelude to something very nasty.

    It’s utterly counter-productive. Americans should feel honoured, in an ironic way: anyone who endures the paper avalanche of the immigration process, which is more confusing and inconsistent than that of any other developed country, must really want to live in the US.

    Answers? Greater co-operation with foreign authorities, rather than attempting to impose standards that aren’t enforced for Americans in general. Effective funding to outsource visa processing in a manner that isn’t subject to abuse. Massive updating of the (now-)BCIS’s technology. More joined-up intelligence. I’d even say that there’s a case for something like the French and German practice, where you have to register with the local government office once you’re resident for a certain period.

    (You can travel passport-free between the UK and Ireland, but the intelligence services and police still managed to track down many IRA suspects.)

    Now, many tourists and business travellers will stay away from the US, rather than suffer the inconvenience — and indignity — of the new process. And those who do want to harm Americans will already have worked out how to circumvent the rules.


    Doug 09.11.03 at 5:00 am

    Glad to have provoked the response and glad the level of snarkiness was generally low. It seems like a number of the problems raised fall under what the computer people call Known Issues:

    1. Foreigners, by definition, only have a limited voice in domestic politics. They can have agents, advocates and lobbyists, but not voters. (This is not uniquely American.) Business lobbies can be very effective, especially in the nitty-gritty that makes up so much of both travel and immigration regulation, but security trumps business.

    2. INS has been poorly funded, badly run and beset by conflicting agendas. (This is an American issue.) Money can probably be found – the end of the Gingrich regime in Congress helped some, and a Democratic Congress might help more – and management can be improved.

    Conflicting agendas, however, are here to stay. Even a country as committed to immigration and long-term visitors as the US has a substantial nativist constituency. Many people think INS’ top job is to keep the illegals out. A fair chunk of people who join the Border Patrol are probably motivated by such sentiments. You can work to keep that nativist constituency marginalized, but in a democratic society, their voice will be heard and the bureaucracy will respond. (Just as you hope your voice will be heard.)

    As a side note, several posters on this thread should be thankful that the consular service is still part of State and not Homeland Security. According to insiders, it was a damn close run thing. And if it had landed at DHS there would have been very little pretense of balancing competing agendas.

    As another side note, before the current government revised them, Germany’s immigration laws were substantially those passed when the Kaiser still ruled from the Prussian capital (Blut und Boden) and had outlasted both Kaiser and Prussia. Even today, one of the country’s two largest parties insists that Germany is not a destination for immigration. I’m not conversant with the details in other EU and soon-to-be-EU countries, but a passing knowledge of the scene suggests that conflicting agendas are not a uniquely American problem either. (Making the assumption that there are pro-immigration elements in European polities.) I’d be interested to know what experiences are like in developed Asia; folklore insists that becoming a Japanese permanent resident is a bureaucratic experience nonpareil. (And oh yeah, Danny O’Brien’s advice about what to do when La Migra comes calling is good the world over. Brown or black and near a Bavarian train station is not something you really want to be unless all your papers are in order; and I’m never so law-abiding as when I’m working in a country with questionable bureaucratic coverage.)

    3. Immigration regulations are contradictory, irritating, petty and often absurd. Yes. When I first lived in Germany, before the Wall fell, to register as a student, I had to prove I had local health insurance. What did I need to get local health insurance? You guessed it: proof that I was registered as a student. In Hungary, I was admitted to the national health scheme shortly before being denied the work permit that supposedly entitled me to join the national health. (Plus I was turned down on the grounds that a Hungarian could do the job that, five years later after I had gone on to greener pastures, no Hungarian had ever been found to do.) Yes, yes, yes, examples multiply and eventually become data. Known Issue; not just an American problem. If any country has solved this problem, they should bottle it and patent it and sell it at monopolists’ prices.

    So far, so what?

    Maria’s suggestion to insist on a connection between measures taken and actual security gains is a good one. It’s not easy, but it’s good. Insisting that those gains occur when the policy is carried out and not just theoretically designed is doubly good. For example, signs are positive that the face-recognition schemes are going onto a far back burner, and that’s good news. Until they can deliver six-sigma reliability, they’re likely to be worse than useless.

    Think about how changes affect people who legitimately want to work within the system. That’s good, too. Probably not done often enough in almost any form of bureaucratic rule-making, but no reason not to start here. I wouldn’t expect much action, though, because of Known Issue 1, except where business interests are affected.

    More money for INS. Can’t hurt.

    Greater cooperation with foreign authorities; good too. I’m told this is going on. Intelligence and law enforcement cooperation was one area of US-EU cooperation that held steady throughout the whole Iraq ruckus. (Unfortunate remarks by the German ex-minister of justice notwithstanding.) Don’t believe for a minute, however, that arm-twisting and occasional brinksmanship aren’t a part of this game. The EU as a whole, and individual member countries, are quite capable of playing bare-knuckles bureaucratic haggling. (Forcing US companies to meet EU data protection requirements, for example.)

    Nick, there may be a case for local registration, but it is a complete and utter political nonstarter. There is a case for abolishing the Swedish welfare state, but that ain’t happenin either.

    On a deeper level, the ideal solution is to work for a political climate in which security won’t immediately trump business or pleasure. That’s a highly non-trivial issue, and the stuff of another post.

    More good ideas?

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