Sa’ad, a university student from Egypt, looked forward to a summer vacation in the United States. Carefully, he filled out his visa application, assembled enough evidence of his family’s financial background to fill a three-ring binder, and paid the $47 application fee. But he emerged from the U.S. embassy in Cairo empty-handed and downhearted. The interviewer who had considered his request had quickly rejected him. “It is not fair,” complained Sa’ad. “She didn’t even give me a chance to talk to her”.
Sa’ad, who spoke to to MSNBC.com on the condition that his full name not be used, is just one of many visa applicants from around the globe to experience tougher scrutiny in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
All 19 of the hijackers had managed to enter the United States on legal visas. To the great embarrassment of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, two even received their student visas posthumously — six months after the attack.
As a result, new visa rules require:
Foreign students to have a student visa in hand before taking courses. If prospective students want to request a student visa while in the United States on a tourist or business visa, they must return to their own country to do so. Previously, visitors on such visas could request a change of status to student visa while here.
Tourist and business visas will now be granted for a minimum of 30 days as opposed to the previous six-month limit. The maximum period has been reduced from one year to six months.
All men between the ages of 16 and 45 from Arab or Muslim countries are subject to a 20-day longer waiting period.
Male applicants are required to fill out a new application form that requests information about military service: a list of countries visited in the last 10 years; training in the use of firearms and explosives; nuclear, biological or chemical experience; involvement in armed conflict; current or past affiliation with professional, social or charitable institutions; and specific travel arrangements with supporting information.
22 days instead of two
A U.S. embassy spokesman in Cairo said that “the requirements for getting a visa are exactly the same as before Sept. 11 but the processing is a bit different. For some applicants, it will take longer to get visas than in the past. Some are being more closely scrutinized in Washington. Instead of getting visas in two days, they may get it in 22 days because names might be sent to Washington for screening.” While the spokesman declined to mention which aspects of a visa application might raise concerns, he said that Washington has a “lookout list.” Any name on that computerized list would be examined more closely.
But few visa applicants get to that point. Many are rejected outright after a brisk three- to five-minute interview. Family members wait anxiously across the street from the U.S. embassy for applicants who have gone inside to be interviewed. The brief meeting largely determines whether or not the applicant will receive a coveted visa.
Sa’ad’s interview was typical. “She asked me one question. ‘Where will you go in the USA?’ I told her California, Florida and Hawaii. She asked me ‘When you go to Hawaii, will you go by car.’ I told her, ‘How can I go by car? Of course I will take a plane.’ She asked me ‘How much money will you take for the trip?’ I told her that for the Cairo-Hawaii part alone, I will take two thousand dollars. Then she said, ‘I can’t get you a visa now because you are a student.’”
Mervat Fawzi Kiriako was waiting for her daughter, Marilyn, to finish her interview. She silently mouthed prayers while she waited. Mervat explained that her two sons had already been rejected for visas in December. She was going to visit her brother who was having marital problems and wanted to bring Marilyn along. But Mervat’s prayers were not answered. After a brief interview, Marilyn, a university student, said she was rejected “for financial reasons.”
Omnia was likewise rejected. She had hoped to visit her sister who is expecting a baby. The interviewer rejected her visa request after asking about her bank account. She said he spoken to her rudely, and gave her a paper that he said would explain why she was rejected. “He told me, ‘If you want to read it, read it. If you don’t, don’t.’”
Amira Munir, a pharmacy student, wanted to take her nephew, 4, and a U.S. citizen, to visit his father, hospitalized in the United States. The boy’s mother is dead and he is being raised by family in Cairo. Although her interviewer recognized the “humanitarian” nature of her request, he said that she was “inappropriate” and would have to find someone else to take the boy.
Those who meet with success are a fairly select group: well-established with good careers or impressive backgrounds, who have already traveled to Europe or the United States, have a convincing reason to travel to the United States and an even better reason to return to Egypt.
A tall, bright-eyed 19-year-old, Hiba Mohamed Magid is the top engineering student in her university and an Egyptian squash champion. She plans to attend a tournament in California this summer while visiting her aunt. Her father, a former admiral in the Egyptian Navy, waited confidently during her interview. Hiba emerged smiling. “The interview lasted three minutes. They asked me why I am going, if my parents had visited the U.S. and how long my aunt has lived there, and where and how long I am going to stay.” Hiba’s passport, stamped with a U.S. visa, would be sent to her within three days.
A top technician with an international company successfully sought tourist visas for himself and his wife.
A prominent, middle-aged employee with a foreign company was also granted tourist visas for himself, his wife and children after a brief and cordial interview. He is a seasoned traveler who has taken his wife and family on summer holidays in Europe.
But stricter requirements for visa approval may be deterring some potential applicants.
The embassy spokesman says that applications from Egypt for U.S. visas are considerably down, although no figures are available. But he contends it may be attributed to several factors: the general drop in air travel immediately after the attacks, harder economic times in Egypt and the United States, travelers’ fears that they will be denied a visa anyway and anger at U.S. foreign policy.
Likewise, the annual visa lottery, by which applicants for immigration to the United States are chosen at random, is down 14% from last year.
NBC’s Charlene Gubash is based in Cairo.