Close ties bind India and the United States. There are about two million people of Indian origin in America. They are US citizens, participants in American commerce, students at university or visitors. It is because of this constant interchange that there has been keen interest in the proposed new visa regulations by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Despite much coverage in the media, some misconceptions about the INS proposals exist. I hope I can put many people's minds at ease: the vast majority of visitors from India to the United States will experience no disruption to their travel because of the proposed new regulations. Let me tell you why:
First, there will be no changes in the way visas are issued by the US Embassy and Consulates in India. Visa applicants will still use our appointment system and courier pass-back services to receive their visas before traveling to the United States. And the long lines for visas are a thing of the past.
Second, the proposals will not reduce the number of visas granted to Indians. Some two thirds of all applicants from India are granted visas -- over 300,000 last year-and travel between the United States and India seems certain to grow further in coming years. Americans certainly welcome this trend.
Third, immigrant visas, the permanent Green Card work permit and the temporary H1B visa work permit will not be affected.
Two changes to INS visa regulations may affect Indians seeking US visas. One change has already occurred, and approval of the other is pending. The INS has implemented a procedure that will limit student visa adjustments within the US, but will not affect legitimate student visa applicants applying abroad. In the past, foreign students could visit the US on a tourist visa and, while in the United States, could apply to change from a tourist (B-2) to a student visa (F-1). This is no longer allowed. Indians wishing to study in America should have their student visas issued in their country of residence before they go to the United States. This will not affect a person's ability to study at his or her chosen university.
In its continuing effort to enhance national security and strengthen immigration controls in the United States, the INS has proposed modifying the current admission period for B-1/B-2 non-immigrant visitors. In the past, the INS allowed most visitors a six-month stay in the US, regardless of the time they required. Now, the INS proposes to base the admission period on the amount of time the visitor requests in order to accomplish the purpose of his or her trip. This modification has been wrongly described as allowing visitors "only" a thirty-day visit to the US. That is not accurate.
If this change of rule is accepted, the INS inspector at the port of entry in the United States would ask all visitors how much time they require to complete their visit. If a visitor does not request more than thirty days in the US, then he or she would generally be granted a stay of 30 days. If the visitor needs more than thirty days, the longer period would normally be approved.
In addition to these two INS regulations, the Senate has approved legislation (still to be passed by the House of Representatives and signed into law by the President) that would require universities to notify the INS of individuals who have entered the country claiming to be students but who, in fact, have not pursued their course of study. This legislation would not affect genuine students, but should help the INS find those who would use the liberal US visa system to enter America for illegal purposes.
I believe these changes strike the appropriate balance between INS's mission to stop illegal immigration, and our desire to welcome legitimate visitors to the United States. Indians and Americans of Indian origin play an increasingly important part in American life. President Bush welcomes this. So do I.
(The author is the Ambassador of the USA to India)