We have returned to Washington, having ushered in the new year amid the snow-covered hills and hollows of West Virginia, where we visited the new Robert C. Byrd monument.
Which, in all honesty, stands practically as tall as the Washington Monument.
The $75 million Robert C. Byrd Telescope in Pocahontas County (which no doubt owes its existence to the senior West Virginia lawmaker and former Democratic Senate majority leader) is the largest steerable radio telescope on Earth.
In fact, the Byrd telescope is one of the largest moving structures of any type in the world, with a collecting area of 2.3 acres and a computer-controlled reflecting surface larger than two football fields.
It can't be missed along scenic Route 28 in the tiny hamlet of Green Bank, home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which encourages the Byrd Telescope's visitors to "marvel at the large deer herds" grazing around the dish.
Don't laugh. The U.S. Navy utilizes the NRAO in West Virginia to calculate precise time for this country's atomic clock.
Mary Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, advises U.S. consular chiefs around the world that, "in keeping with the spirit of American justice and fairness," pre-Sept. 11 rules "must be followed" when issuing or denying visas to enter the United States.
In an unclassified telegram to the consular chiefs, obtained by this column, Ryan instructs that "consular officers should not refuse visa applications on substantive grounds without first giving the applicant an opportunity to be interviewed in person."
"When the refusal is based on substantive grounds," she writes, "the explanation for the refusal should be done in person at the time of the interview. No refusals without an opportunity to be interviewed."
Ryan oversees the 1,995-employee Bureau of Consular Affairs, or Consular Corps, and says "this policy is in keeping with the spirit of American justice and fairness."
Each year, the Consular Corps issues more than 6 million visas to foreign nationals wishing to visit the United States and another 500,000 to those wishing to reside here.
Ryan adds in the telegram that she's been called before numerous House and Senate committees in recent months to testify about various aspects of visa policy, "where all kinds of proposals have been floated, with some (in the wake of Sept. 11) even calling for a moratorium on visa issuance."
"We have been working with interested parties on (Capitol) Hill to ensure that new measures taken to improve security do not undermine America's fundamental ideals as a nation of immigrants," she assures.
It so happens that the majority of the 19 suicide terrorists of Sept. 11 applied for - and obtained - visas to enter the United States.
But apart from these late terrorists, who followed the preferred legal route of entry into the country, there happen to be millions living here who didn't bother to apply for visas. And that not-so-fun fact has U.S. authorities increasingly concerned.
New U.S. Census Bureau data show more than 31 million foreign-born people now living in the United States. Of these, an astonishing 8 million are illegals -- a 4.5 million increase since 1990.
According to the latest census data, almost one-third of all U.S. immigration during the 1990s was illegal.
POLITICS, AS USUAL
We're happy to report that politics in Washington is slowly returning to usual following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I am extremely disappointed in the Republicans' return to the politics of personal partisan attacks," says Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "Republicans from the White House, the Republican National Committee and now Newt Gingrich's pollsters have ended all bipartisanship."
McAuliffe was sore that the recent Democratic economic-recovery plan never gained the needed steam in Congress.
"It is obvious that Republicans are already running scared in 2002," he concludes of the failure.
Readers can expect more mudslinging between Democrats and Republicans when Congress reconvenes on Jan. 23. The Republican National Committee, by the way, can't wait to unleash its new chairman this month, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a pal of President Bush.