Visas

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a wide-ranging bill last week that would significantly increase funding for exchange programs, and directs the Department of State to undertake major changes in visa processing, its administration of the Exchange Visitor Program, and its conduct of public diplomacy.

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The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a wide-ranging bill last week that would significantly increase funding for exchange programs, and directs the Department of State to undertake major changes in visa processing, its administration of the Exchange Visitor Program, and its conduct of public diplomacy.

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Amidst calls for action on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) returned to Washington on Tuesday and introduced sweeping legislation to implement the Commission’s 41 proposals. Included in the legislation are several provisions to increase and expand public diplomacy and exchange programs.

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On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved legislation to extend by one year, to October 26, 2005, the deadline for inclusion of a biometric identifier on passports issued by Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries. The legislation, H.R. 4417, passed the House of Representatives on June 14. It would amend the deadline of October 26, 2004, set by the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 for the 27 countries that participate in the VWP.

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In an effort to eliminate barriers to foreign students and exchange visitors, Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) introduced legislation on Wednesday that would streamline the visa process and require the government to develop a strategic plan to attract foreign students.

Recognizing that the safety and security of the United States are extremely important, in his statement on the Senate Floor introducing the bill, Coleman said, "We all know there is absolutely no such thing as an absolute guarantee of absolute security in a free society, so what we do is measure the level of threat against the loss of certain other values and then we try to strike a balance. In the area of student visas, I believe we have pushed security concerns beyond the logical point and need to make adjustments to our policy."

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The House Appropriations Committee includes $345.346 million for the educational and cultural exchange programs of the Department of State for FY 2005 in its version of the Commerce-Justice-State-the Judiciary (CJS) appropriations legislation, approved Wednesday. The funding level for these programs is $28.713 million above the FY 2004 funding level, and equal to the amount in President Bush's FY 2005 budget request.

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At a recent hearing examining U.S. public diplomacy efforts to stem the tide of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, Senators called for more resources for public diplomacy and exchange programs.

"Money alone will not solve our public diplomacy problems. But I respectfully suggest that we need to invest a lot more in public diplomacy," said ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat Joe Biden (D-DE) at the February 26 hearing. "We have proven programs in educational and citizen exchanges, cultural diplomacy, and international broadcasting - all of which are underfunded. We only hurt ourselves, and the national interest, by such parsimony."

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The House Science Committee today called on the Departments of State and Homeland Security to streamline visa processing.

Noting the need for balance between enhancing homeland security and ensuring that the U.S. science continues to thrive, Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said, "A visa regime that casts too wide a net - that holds up just about everybody for excessive security checks - that regime is not good for security or for science. It's not good for security because if distracts and overwhelms the system, taking resources away from investigations of individuals more likely to present a real threat to our nation. And it's obviously not good for science, given that U.S. success in science has always depended on attracting the best minds from around the world."

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Following a long and contentious process, the Senate this afternoon passed the $820 billion fiscal year (FY) 2004 omnibus spending package which includes $320 million for educational and cultural exchange programs, $500,000 for the Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowships Commission, $1 billion for the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and $1.65 billion for HIV/AIDS, among other programs. The final agreement which funds seven of the 13 annual appropriations bills, was approved by the House in early December. The Senate held back its approval until today, almost four months into the fiscal year, because of several contentious issues unrelated to exchanges in the bill. The legislation is now cleared for President Bush's signature.

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