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House panel hears complaints of costly visa delays

WASHINGTON—Post-9-11 delays in processing visas by U.S. consulates overseas are forcing foreign performing artists to cancel American bookings and are sending potential Microsoft wizards to Indian and Chinese competitors, recruiters of those talents claimed Tuesday.

The delays are widespread, State Department and Government Accountability Office officials acknowledged at a House Government Operations Committee hearing, especially at some of the busiest consulates. They include Chennai, India, where the wait has been up to 168 days; Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where it's 167 days; Bombay, India, 154 days; Mexico City, 134 days; and Havana, where it's 129 days.

Tony Edson, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for visa services, told lawmakers that delays at Chennai and other clogged consulates were unacceptable. He blamed the problem on staff shortages and consular office buildings that are too small to handle the traffic.

He also said 97 percent of international visa applicants who were found to be qualified received visas one or two days after in-person interviews.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., and other lawmakers said they were all for faster processing, but without compromising security.

Acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in Washington for a Kennedy Center concert, testified that he had run afoul of the problem in his Silk Road Project, which has brought hundreds of foreign musicians to the United States in recent years.

According to Ma, a pair of Iranian musicians, Siamak Aghaei and Siamak Jahangiri, had to visit the U.S. consulate in Dubai three times over three months in 2003 to obtain their visas. The first was for an in-person interview, which is required under post-9-11 security rules, the second to pick up approved visa forms and the third because the consulate's visa printer was broken on their second visit.

The ordeal cost Ma's organization $5,000 in travel expenses and, he said, nearly kept the Iranians off the Silk Road Project's U.S. tour.

"Our (nation's) cultural strength has always been derived from our diversity of understanding and experience," Ma said, urging lawmakers to streamline the visa process.

Sandra Gibson, the head of the U.S. Association of Performing Arts Presenters, a trade group, said visa delays had reduced the number of U.S. venues that offer foreign artists. According to Gibson, 75 percent of her group's members offered foreign talent in 2002. By 2005, it was down to 60 percent, "largely because of the onerous visa process and risk that these performances would have to be canceled."

Microsoft has a variant of the same problem, testified Kevin Schofield, the company's general manager for strategy and communications. He said Microsoft had difficulty getting prospective employees' visas through the Chennai consulate in particular. He called the delays "a direct threat to American competitiveness."

Edson said the State Department was moving to meet India's burgeoning demand by opening new consulates in Hyderabad, a major center for offshore operations of U.S. computer companies, and in populous Bombay.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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