Consul-General in Chennai says his post handles about 600 visa applications a day
Any impression or conclusion that United States missions anywhere in the world, including in India, base decisions on the grant of visas on the factors of religion or race is unfounded and unfortunate, Andrew T. Simkin, U.S. Consul-General in Chennai, said on Monday.
After a detailed briefing given to a group of journalists from The Hindu on the process of visa issuance at the Consulate, that included a tour of the premises to watch first-hand how the different steps are handled, the Consul-General answered questions on anecdotal perceptions on the visa granting process, among other issues.
“Religion and race are immaterial to us,” Mr. Simkin stressed. The Chennai post is among the top 15 U.S. visa processing stations in the world and it handled about 1.5 lakh applications during the previous 365 days. Only a small percentage of the applicants fail to get their visas, or need to go through additional paperwork, he says. Chennai currently handles about 600 visa applications a day.
“We do not base any of our visa decisions on religion. The idea is offensive that we would discriminate on the basis of religion.” U.S. visa interview forms do not enquire about the religion of the applicant.
Factors that are taken into account include age, employment, family, credibility, demeanour, and validity of documents, he explained. “When we reject [a non-immigrant visa for someone] it is almost always because we are not sure that the person will come back home after a temporary stay in the United States.”
Sometimes commonality of surnames could be an issue. Often questions were raised why a number of people with Muslim names were held up. Post the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center (the first attack on the twin towers) in New York, heavier emphasis began to be placed on restricting visas for people who were on a security watch list.
“The sense of responsibility that one [a visa officer] feels while approving a visa is very significant. When any of us approves a visa, our name is attached to that person to a certain degree,” he said.
There is coordination among multiple government agencies internationally to collate details of offenders on a single list. About 10 years ago, there were six million names on a watch list. Today, that number has risen to 30 million. Given this, it is more likely that people, who come from cultures or regions with fewer surnames in circulation, such as among Muslims, Hispanics, or other groups of Indians, will have delays in visa processing.
The Consul-General, however, said better coordination among different agencies of the U.S. government could improve the situation in this regard.
If people said many Muslim names got held up, then it was the function of commonness of names such as ‘Khan,' or ‘Hernandez' among Hispanics, Mr. Simkin explained.
Explaining the case of Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel being held up at a U.S. port of entry for additional screening, he said Patel was the 174th most common name in the U.S. and 24th most common name in the United Kingdom. It was only natural that when a high-profile person is involved, the system comes in for adverse notice.
Citing instances in India and elsewhere, he said it was possible for anyone to be stopped and subjected to a secondary check. “I have been subjected to secondary check [at the U.S. port of entry] twice,” he said.
In South India, names were very distinct and hence the possibility of being singled out for mere commonness of name in relation to the watch list was relatively less. But in Pakistan, for example, there were relatively fewer names in circulation.
The Consul-General said: “We cannot evaluate a person in a vacuum. We have to compare him to a list of people we have adverse information about.” The verification would have to be done to ensure that the applicant did not match a name on the list.
He said only 3% of applications needed any additional screening. There were other special categories of people whose visa applications were deliberated over longer, including those working in sensitive technology areas, and those who frequently visited certain regions of the world.