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View All Transcripts: Ask the Ambassador | Ask the State Department

Welcome to "Ask the State Department" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to State Department officials.

Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, led an online discussion regarding advancements in technology and security to facilitate travel for visitors to the United States.

Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Maura Harty
Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs

January 19, 2006

Maura Harty
I welcome this opportunity to talk with you about the State Department's role in facilitating travel and U.S. border security. Earlier this week Secretaries Rice and Chertoff spoke about the ways in which we are realizing the President's vision for secure borders and open doors in the information age. The Bureau of Consular Affairs has made great advances in technology and staffing to enhance security and efficiency as we welcome travelers to the United States. In addition to these efforts, we continue to work every day to protect and assist American citizens in the United States and overseas.

Thank you for joining the discussion, and I look forward to your questions.

Paul from Nebraska writes:
How will the new technological and staffing advances help quicken the visa and passport application process?

Maura Harty:
Hi Paul, and thanks for your question, and for your interest in this subject. The staffing advances that Secretary Rice mentioned - over 500 new consular positions around the world - have allowed us in most posts to provide very proficient, efficient and quick service. One metric for example is that there over 200 posts around the world that do consular work and fewer than thirty of them have an extended wait time to get an appointment for a visa interview. We're working very hard every day, continually looking at possibly realigning staff, always looking at our business processes to make sure that we can make them as efficient as we possibly can. In the places where we have a waiting time that I am not comfortable with, that is sometimes a function regrettably of the physical plant, that is not enough windows to interview as many of people as the demand implies, or still yet not enough officers to do the interviews. And we will continue to work on that until we get it to an appropriate level at all posts. Now in the meantime, what we are also doing is finding ways to put key categories at, essentially, the front of the line. There are special programs for students; there are special programs for business travelers; and always, there are special programs for people who have medical emergencies and need to travel quickly.

Nick writes:
I am a student from another country who wishes to study in the U.S. I know that the U.S. wishes to keep and "open doors" policy, but will the new changes in security affect my ability to study in the U.S.?

Maura Harty:
Nick, I am so glad that you wrote today because you are exactly the target audience that I want. I am grateful for your interest and I would love to hear back from you when you register at an American University. One of the most important things for the security of my country is to get young people from other countries here to the US to see America with their own eyes. I believe the best commercial for my country is my country, and I welcome your interest and enthusiasm in coming here to study. The Open Doors policy, in fact, honors our history as a nation that has always been welcoming, as a nation that respects diversity, is very, very interested in remaining true to our roots as a nation that welcomes people from other lands. I am the granddaughter of immigrants and so pleased and proud of the history of my family, because it is the history of America. Now the other side of that equation that you've already read, of course, is Secure Borders. That means, Nick, that when you come to the U.S., you will find that, because of the efforts we have engaged in to make this country safer for Americans it is similarly safer for you and all other visitors.

We must never forget that on Sept. 11, citizens from more than 90 other countries lost their lives. And so Secure Borders speaks to our responsibility to make this country as safe as we can for American citizens and for all of our visitors who might come to our shores. I welcome you and I wish you well in your choice of over 4,000 different American colleges and universities that I'm sure will welcome you.

Jim from Texas writes:
I am a law enforcement official from Texas and wish to travel to Mexico. I realize that the State Department wishes to make borders more secure, but what about law enforcement officials who wish to carry firearms while visiting Mexico? Will the new efforts by the Department of State impact my ability to do so?

Maura Harty:
Thanks for the question, Jim. Although it is a little bit off the message of the day, I very much appreciate your interest and I do sincerely underscore to you and to anyone else who is looking at this response about the necessity, when we are travelers in foreign lands, to make ourselves aware of the laws of those lands and also to underscore the importance of respecting them. Millions of Americans travel abroad safely every year, without - thank goodness - mishap or even misunderstanding. I need to emphasize how seriously the government of Mexico takes its own laws and I would like to very strongly advise you to take a look at our website - Travel.State.Gov. If you do that you will be in the company of over one hundred million people who do that annually. You will find that there is an information sheet about travel to Mexico. It will tell you a little bit about what you need to know before you go. I would advise you to leave your weapon at home and to enjoy your visit to Mexico following the guidelines that you'll see in our Consular Information Sheet.

Sue from Mississippi writes:
I need to order and renew an old passport that I lost. Is there a way to order a new passport through a web-based process? It just seems like that would be more efficient.

Maura Harty:
Hi Sue. With respect to your need to order a new passport I would like to tell you that there are over 7000 different passport acceptance facilities in the United States where you can go to apply for a new passport and to report the old one lost. I urge you to do that. You must report that the old one is lost but should you perchance sometime down the line, after having reported it lost find it, do not use it. It will have been reported to our colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security and it is no longer a document that is considered valid for travel. With respect to those acceptance facilities I already mentioned, you might call them something different. They are post offices, they are clerks of court, they are libraries all over the United States. And there are any number of them in Mississippi. I would suggest calling your local post office and ask which acceptance facility is nearest you. The reason we have a partnership with post offices around the country is simply because they are everywhere and they do this work very well for us. You do not need to go to a passport agency to renew your passport, you can do it closer to home.

For additional information about the services we provide in the passport area please turn to our website, Travel.State.Gov. Just click on "Passports" and you'll get more information than I've been able to give you here, but I'm hopeful and certain that it will answer all of your questions.

Nat writes:
Will the new security changes make it easier to identify fraudulent visa schemes? I know many people who thought that they received a visa to travel to the U.S., only to find out that it was a hoax.

Maura Harty:
Good afternoon Nat. I'm actually intrigued by your question and I thank you for it. Since September 11th, we have made a wide and broad and deep variety of changes to how we adjudicate visas and how we process visas to an efficient, proficient conclusion. The Bureau of Consular Affairs also has a very robust working relationship with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security here in the Department of State. Together, we work very hard to identify fraudulent visa schemes for a number of reasons, the two most important reasons being that we do not want to let anyone into this country who should not be here or want to do us harm. Any attempt to defraud the process is one I take very seriously. But the other side of that, the side to which I believe you allude in the second part of your question, is that there are some people out there who are the victims of what I might call consumer fraud. They've never had anything to do with an Embassy, but they've been fooled by a nefarious third party. I not only resent that but I'm saddened for the people who in fact find themselves in that situation. The truth of the matter is the only place to get a U.S. visa is at an American Consulate or Embassy. Don't talk to strangers. Come right to the American Consulate or Embassy for the information you need. That information is readily available as well through our website, Travel.State.Gov. Thanks for your question, Nat.

Wendy writes:
I am involved in a new web-based portal project and am putting together some country profiles regarding security documents. Specifically, I have some questions about the new ePassport. How long is it valid and how many passports will be produced each year?

Maura Harty:
Wendy, thank you very much for your question. Your project sounds very interesting to me. With respect to the new E-Passport, our intention and our plan is that the E-Passport will be valid for the same period as the current passport, that is for a ten-year period of validity. With respect to how many passports will be produced each year, we will meet the demand. As a metric for you, in 2005, approximately 10.1 million U.S. passport applications were adjudicated and passports issued. In 2006 we expect to produce upwards of 13 million passports and expect that number to increase annually as American citizens continue to show an increased interest in international travel and a desire to have this premier document that shows both proof of citizenship and identity.

Diane writes:
How will new travel documents be made more secure? Where is the chip stored in the new ePassport?

Maura Harty:
Thanks for your question. The chip is in the cover of the passport. That is, of course, one of the new security features in the passport, but I hope that when you order yours and you compare it to the current style of passport, you will also see that there's an extraordinary new level of detail and a number of new security features that make that document more secure than its predecessor.

Paula writes:
I am planning a vacation cruise to Puerto Rico, Barbados, Dominica, and Aruba. Will the new changes being made by the State Department affect whether a visa is required in any of these locations?

Maura Harty:
That sounds like a great trip and I thank you so much for your question. The new changes made by the State Department do not actually affect whether a visa is required by another country. Some people may not be aware that there is no visa requirement to go to Puerto Rico, a part of the United States. With respect to Barbados, Dominica, and Aruba, I would suggest you either call their consulates or embassies to check with them directly, or take a look at our website, travel.state.gov, and look at our Consular Information Sheets for each of those countries. That will give you an idea of the current visa requirements. Alternatively, if a travel agent is helping you arrange this trip, most travel agents are readily familiar with that information as well.

Daoud writes :
I have uncle who is an American citizen and I would like to know if the upcoming advances will change expedite the process to obtain an immigrant visa petition for me in the form of family based visa, and what will be the steps to follow?

Maura Harty:
Daoud. I thank you for your question, and I hope someday we will be able to welcome you to the United States if that is in fact your ultimate desire. Specifically, though, the changes that were announced by Secretaries Rice and Chertoff do not connote a change to the immigrant visa petition process at this time. While we are always looking at ways to improve the processes themselves, what you are talking about with reference to family-preference visas is not in fact, part of the Rice-Chertoff Joint Vision and so not in the short term anything that we foresee changing.

Raj writes :
I travel back and forth from India and feel that there must be a more efficient way to obtain visas. Can people obtain visas online? If not, are there plans to do so?

Maura Harty:
Hi Raj, Thank you for your question. Visas are not obtainable online right now. That is a matter of law, because we need to interview people applying for visas, and we need to be able to collect a biometric. We are always interested in finding ways to make that process more efficient. In fact, the Rice-Chertoff Joint Vision describes a number of initiatives that we will be exploring in the coming year that we hope will make the process more efficient. If you are a student of the visa process in India, you will perhaps note that a number of positive changes have been made over the last couple years and we continue to work very assiduously through that process to make it as efficient as we possibly can.

Sam in New York writes:
I work for a company in Canada and my company will be sending me to work in a U.S. office. Will there be any security changes that will impact people who frequently cross the Canadian-U.S. border?

Maura Harty:
Thank you Sam for your insightful question. Yes, in fact, the Rice-Chertoff Joint Vision that we rolled out speaks exactly to the heart of that matter. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requires, or will soon require, that American citizens have a federally issued document that is recognized by the Department of Homeland Security and that will provide proof of citizenship and identity. That is traditionally done by the U.S. passport, a well-recognized document. In the Rice-Chertoff Joint Vision, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security indicated that we are also in the process of building a new card that would be wallet-sized-something that someone in your situation, who travels regularly back and forth across the border, could handily carry in their wallet as you do an ATM card or credit card. If you have a U.S. passport now, you're already squared away. In the coming year, as we roll out the card and we make that available to people, you may choose that as an option in the future. Travel.state.gov will continue to be updated as we progress in the manufacture and the roll-out of the card that is wallet-sized, and it will be able to meet the same requirement that the passport currently fulfills.

Hilda writes :
I was informed that there is a list that can be searched to make sure we are not dealing with someone considered a terrorist. Will the new changes make it easier to access an updated version of this list?

Maura Harty:
Hilda, I'm not entirely certain where it is that you work, or who or what was the source of the information that you have been given. In the post-September 11 world, many, many changes that have been made that have resulted in widespread coordination among a variety of agencies in the U.S. federal government so that agencies involved in the U.S. visa process, or the allowing of a visitor to enter the United States, have information available about any person who might intend to do this country harm. Our goal is to make information sharing as easy, as rapid, as efficient as it possibly can be, as our larger goal of keeping this country as safe as we can is met every single day.

Cheryl writes:
I plan on traveling back and forth to Tanzania. How will the State Department's new changes make it easier for me to determine whether it's safe to travel?

Maura Harty:
Cheryl, thank you very much for your question. I'd like to urge you as you plan your trip to Tanzania to please check our web site, travel.state.gov, where you will find a Consular Information Sheet on Tanzania and any other country in which you have an interest. It will make information available to you that you may want to keep in mind as you plan that trip. On that same web site, you will also find the ability to register your trip with us, so that we will know what your travel plans are. If, heaven forbid, there were a need or a reason to have to contact you, we would know where to find you and be able to help you more quickly or perhaps to put a loved one in touch with you should an emergency develop.

Thomas from Minnesota writes:
Regarding the new e-passport, which biometric types are included? Is it ICAO compliant?

Maura Harty:
Thank you very much, Thomas, for your question. Our new passport is ICAO compliant. Regarding the new e-passport, the information that will be stored in the chip in the cover of the passport is the same information that is readily accessibl e to the naked eye on your current passport, that is, your biographic data and your photo. So the biometric incorporated in the new passport is facial recognition.

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