No more open door for Saudis

Posted: Nov 22, 2002 12:00 AM
In the new Homeland Security bill just passed by both houses of Congress, stricter visa controls were enacted for people wishing to gain entry to the United States from one—and only one—country: Saudi Arabia. And the only people who lobbied against the new Saudi-specific policy were officials at the State Department, who often do the bidding of the Saudi royal family. Just two sentences—tucked away in over 400 pages—spell out the two simple requirements. The new policy prohibits “third-party screening programs”—the most famous example of which is Visa Express, which allowed Saudi residents to submit their visa applications to private Saudi travel agents—and every Saudi visa application must be reviewed by an on-site Homeland Security officer before a visa can be issued. The practical implication of this new policy for Saudis is that all Saudi residents—by law—must directly turn in their visa forms to either the embassy in Riyadh or the consulate in Jeddah. State actually ended Visa Express a few months ago because of enormous public pressure—but Congress wanted to take no chances that the program could be revived when no one was looking. While the new procedure does inconvenience Saudis wishing to come to the United States, that is not the reason Congress adopted it. What Congress sought—and hopefully will get—is a better filter for screening out possible al Qaeda operatives wishing to come here on a temporary visa, the method used by all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists to get into the United States. Aside from making permanent the demise of Visa Express, the provision does something much more important: It requires Homeland Security officers in Saudi Arabia to review all applications before any visas can be issued. More than anything, an extra set of eyeballs can be crucial. The consular officer who issued 10 of the visas to the 9/11 terrorists has said that she would not have granted the visas if not for pressure from her superiors within the State Department. Homeland Security personnel reviewing applications, however, would theoretically be immune to such pressures to compromise border security in order to improve “bilateral relations” with the Saudis. The true effectiveness of the Homeland Security reviews of Saudi applications, of course, depends on how the new department shapes up. If critics are proven wrong with a smooth launch and a department with the proper focus on protecting America, then the supporting role in Saudi Arabia could be a boon for border security. If the massive bureaucracy collapses under its own weight, however, its impact in Saudi Arabia could be minimal. But anything would be an improvement over State’s superficial screening of Saudi visa applicants. Even though State made a few new improvements in Saudi Arabia, such as longer interviews (which now last a whopping 10 minutes), State’s own figures show that most Saudis still enjoy an open door into this country. According to statistics prepared by officials at State, a mere 3% of Saudi national applicants after 9/11 have been refused visas, which pales in comparison to the worldwide refusal rate of over 25%. In fact, every visa applicant is supposed to be presumed ineligible until he proves his own eligibility, because getting a visa is not supposed to be easy—but it is for Saudis. State protested to House and Senate leaders that the language, written by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL), singled out the Saudis. But shouldn’t we “single out” the country that sent us 15 of 19 9/11 terrorists? Apparently, not everyone in Congress agreed, as State was assured that the Weldon provision would be removed, according to a House GOP leadership aide. But with the last-minute confusion and the rush to get the mammoth bill passed during the lame-duck session, the section targeting Saudi Arabia stayed put. That may be a loss for State, but it is a clear victory for border security—and Americans.