DHS takes over visas from State

As if Homeland Security Department officials didn't have enough work to do, they were assigned another job Tuesday — overseeing visa applications around the world.

Although the State Department will continue to have a major role in dispensing visas, DHS will have a new responsibility to oversee visa applications and determine if an applicant should have a personal interview.

In its new role mandated by Congress, DHS will control visa policy, have final say over State decisions and make sure security requirements are carried out. State will continue to control certain visa decisions that impact foreign policy, such as deciding who can have a visa to travel to the United Nations for diplomatic reasons.

DHS agents already have been to Saudi Arabia to review every visa applicant. All 19 of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers obtained U.S. visas in that Middle Eastern country, in some cases without having personal interviews with U.S. embassy personnel.

"In a post [Sept. 11, 2001] world, visa issuance must be a border security job," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee, which held a hearing today on the new policy.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for the DHS Border and Transportation Security Directorate, testified before the panel that the joint State-DHS partnership would help secure the border from "external threats while ensuring that our doors remain open to legitimate travel."

"We view the visa process as the 'forward-based defense' of the United States against terrorists and criminals who seek to enter the United States with the intention to do harm," Hutchinson said.

U.S. visa policy has hit other snags. State officials decided to delay for a year the requirement for machine-readable passports for 26 countries whose citizens are free to travel to the United States without a visa. Visa waiver countries argued they did not have enough time to issue the new documents.

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