11:30 A.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to the Foreign Press Center. It’s good to see so many familiar faces. Today, we are joined with Assistant Secretary Janice Jacobs, who will brief on consular issues. I ask that you all – if you have not done so already – please turn your electronic devices on silent or turn them off. I also would like to send out a reminder that during the question-and-answer period, please be advised that this is only for our foreign journalists. With that, I will turn the floor over to Assistant Secretary Jacobs.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Thank you, and good morning to everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I thought I would open with a statement and then open it up to any consular related questions that you might have.
It is always a pleasure for me to come here to the Foreign Press Center and to meet with journalists to discuss the work that the Bureau of Consular Affairs does. As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day next week in Washington, I would like to reiterate the State Department’s enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age.
Sadly, a number of journalists were injured and killed covering events in Libya last week. My bureau continues to work to gain the release of other U.S. reporters who are being detained there. These courageous journalists risk their lives to provide independent information on the events unfolding in Libya, and I’d like to thank you for your coverage of consular issues.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs directly touches the lives of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals alike. Our mission is to protect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad and to strengthen the security of U.S. borders through the vigilant adjudication of both U.S. passports and visas. The bureau contributes significantly to promoting international exchange and understanding. Our vision is to help U.S. citizens engage the world and to help foreign nationals experience America.
We do this through the issuance of travel documents that allow U.S. citizens to travel the globe and lawful immigrants and visitors to travel to America. We provide essential services to U.S. citizens overseas, including routine services such as replacing passports, and emergency services, such as repatriation. We also play an important role assisting U.S. citizens with inter-country adoptions and in cases of international parental child abduction.
One of the highest priorities for the Department of State is the protection of U.S. citizens abroad. U.S. citizens are on the move and traveling to more and more remote locations all the time. We issued 13.9 million passport books and cards in Fiscal Year 2010 and estimate that about one-third of the U.S. population now holds passports.
At times, we find ourselves helping these U.S. passport holders when they land in harm’s way. When a crisis occurs overseas, such as a natural disaster, mass transportation disaster, war, or widespread violent civil uprising, we work through our embassies and consulates, as well as other governments and private organizations, to identify all available resources to assist our citizens. We make every effort to identify U.S. citizens who are in potential danger and provide them with information about those resources.
Every crisis is unique, and the nature of the crisis affects the logistics of each situation. In the simplest situations, when local communications and transportation infrastructure are intact and operating normally or even at only a limited level, most of our effort is devoted to keeping the local U.S. citizen community informed of developments and advised of travel options. In extreme situations, where local infrastructure is damaged or severely compromised, we will work with the host government, partner countries, and other U.S. Government agencies to enable charted or noncommercial transportation for citizens requiring evacuation. This could include transportation by air, land, or sea.
Recently, the work of the Bureau of Consular Affairs has been highlighted in the media due to the unrest in the Middle East and the tragic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, taking the lives of two U.S. citizens and thousands of Japanese. Each of these crises posed different challenges that we had to work around, from physical logistics to communication barriers. But something that assisted us in all of the recent crises we dealt with was the media. The media has significantly helped us amplify our messages.
In addition to relying on traditional media, we have found that our engagement in social media, including Facebook and Twitter, has been an exceptional asset to our communication strategy when we’re faced with a crisis. For example, during the crisis in Egypt, we tweeted evacuation information around the clock. Even though internet communications were severed at times, we relied on families of U.S. citizens here in the United States to relay our messages and information to loved ones in Egypt who wished to depart. By using a variety of communication strategies and a devotion of passionate embassy staff, we were able to evacuate over 2,300 U.S. citizens from Egypt on U.S. government charter flights earlier this year.
At the end of every crisis, we evaluate our lessons learned to ensure that we are well equipped to handle the next crisis. That’s exactly what we did during the recent crisis that occurred in Japan. Anytime a task force is set up at the State Department, we provide a phone number and email address to the public so individuals can provide or seek information about a loved one who is in the affected area. We track their information using our crisis database, which can be updated from the field or in Washington to account for the whereabouts of U.S. citizens and keep family and friends informed.
Since Japan is so technologically advanced, we implemented our task force alert system, which allows the public to upload contact data and photographs for missing U.S. citizens directly from our website, travel.state.gov. We’re very excited about this launch and look forward to using it during future crises that we may face.
As we are assisting U.S. citizens in harm’s way, we continue to play an important role in welcoming legitimate travelers to the United States. In Fiscal Year 2010, we issued more than 6.4 million non-immigrant visas to foreign nationals, about a 10 percent increase over 2009. Visas reunite families and strengthen the U.S. economy through business and tourism. In the first 11 months of 2010, international visitors spent an estimated $122.7 billion on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services. This was up 11 percent from the same period in 2009.
We promote international peace and understanding when we issue student and exchange visitor visas. We issued 715,000 student and exchange visas in the fiscal year that ended last October, more visas than we issued before 9/11. When foreign and U.S. students sit side by side in classrooms around the world, they exchange ideas, change old stereotypes, and gain immeasurable knowledge about each other.
As you all know, the responsibilities of the Bureau of Consular Affairs are of interest not just to U.S. citizens, but to others around the world. While we try to provide as much information about our responsibilities as we can, at times we’re constrained by certain U.S. laws. The Privacy Act of 1974, for example, with certain exceptions, prohibits us from releasing any information about U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents without their prior written consent. U.S. citizens have an opportunity to designate who can receive information about their cases – lawyers, friends, families, Congress, and the media. Even when citizens don’t permit release of information to journalists, we often can share general information about consular services we provide, but we do this in consultation with our attorneys.
Questions related to visas are covered by Section 222-F of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that visa records are confidential. So again, while we’re always happy to provide the media with general information about our visa issuance procedures, we normally won’t be able to answer questions related to specific cases.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs is one of the largest bureaus in the State Department, with some 11,000 officers, local staff, and contractors working in more than 300 places around the world. We’re proud of the work that we do and we’re pleased when you can tell the stories that – about the people that we’ve helped. So I thank you again for coming today, and I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Okay. So we’ll start here at the front. And please state your name and news organization. Thank you.
QUESTION: Mikes Zoltan, World Business Press Online in Slovakia. And I would like to ask a question on behalf of foreign journalists. Why are the visas for foreign journalists just for one year? And the second question is: If a foreign journalist gets an I-94, where it’s stated – until the status is varied on the I-94, does it mean that he can stay longer than the visa allows, or is it something other? I got conflicting information on this.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay. Two very good questions. To answer your first question, the length of the visas that we issue depend on reciprocity. And so the schedules, the reciprocity schedules, vary from country to country. And basically what it amounts to is whatever an American citizen is given in that particular category is what we will offer to you. So in your country, I would imagine that American journalists get one-year visas, and so that’s why we give journalists one-year visas. It really is based purely on reciprocity.
To answer your second question, there is some confusion from time to time about the visas that we issue and the authorized length of stay in the United States. The visa will allow you to travel to and from the United States during the validity of the visa. So in your case, during a one-year period, you could come as many times as you wanted as a journalist. The length of stay is determined by the inspector – the Department of Homeland Security inspector at the port of entry. And so normally for, say tourists and business travelers, that stay is authorized normally for up to six months. But for certain categories, and I think for journalists, it is – you’re authorized to stay here as long as you are practicing journalism, basically.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: As long as you are – remain in status and you are doing what you said you would do when you were given that stay – length of stay by the Department of Homeland Security, you’re fine. It really doesn’t have to match the visa.
QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary. My name is Bingru Wang with Phoenix TV. My first question is as President, Obama kept saying out competition, out education. Is there any possibility in the future for the visa, for foreign students who – with an advanced degree, is the policy going to change a little bit in the future?
And the second question is it’s reported yesterday that the U.S. is considering tougher visas for Chinese officials. Could you, please, comment on it? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay. On – to answer your first question, I think what you’re asking is if there’s going to be any change with regard to the policy for people who are studying here to be allowed to stay. And you may know that there have been many different ideas that have been floated as part of a comprehensive immigration package, and I think something like that would probably be included in that discussion. I don’t think any decisions have been made along those lines. I do know that foreign students who get master’s degree or above in certain fields now can qualify for temporary worker visas at the end of their studies. So that change was made a while back.
So I think there is certainly recognition of the talents that people can, bring foreign students certainly, at the graduate level, undergraduate level as well. And it is something that my bureau gives very high priority to facilitating student travel to the United States. We have put many measures in place where we give priority to the processing of student visas overseas. I’m very proud to say that in the last fiscal year we did 715,000 student and exchange visitor visas, which is an all-time high, much higher than we were issuing before 9/11. So we’re very proud of those numbers, and it is something that I personally take a great interest in. So it is quite possible in the future that there will be more discussion about allowing people to stay who have come here to study. But right now it – there isn’t any immediate change coming down the pike.
And as far as the – I think there was a story that came out that somehow we were going to become tougher on official visas out of China. In fact, that is not the case. We will continue processing visas in China in accordance with the worldwide procedures and standards that we have in place. There has not been any discussion of changing those procedures. In fact, we welcome travel from China. We are taking any number of steps in my bureau and within the State Department to try to meet the demand that we face right now and that we know we’re going to face in the future, so this is a high priority for us and one that we will continue concentrating on.
MODERATOR: We’re going to go to New York first. New York, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. I wanted to find out about the security issues involved with issuing visas. Are there any new technological advances in place so that we can make sure that we don’t have the same thing happen that happened in 9/11?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Oh, well, that’s a very good question. And the answer is yes, absolutely. We have put in place any number of security measures, we in the State Department, but other agencies involved in protecting U.S. borders. We have completely transformed the visa process after 9/11. We are now interviewing most visa applicants. We collect biometrics. We share data with other agencies. There are many, many layers of security that have been put in place to protect – protect us from those who might want to do us harm. We have used technology to a great extent. We in Consular Affairs have developed very sophisticated systems for basically keeping track of the cases that we handle for sharing data with other agencies, for the ability to check on applicants to see if there might be any information. So any number of steps that we have taken, and we continue all the time to improve our technology and our discussions with other agencies who are involved with national security and border protection to make sure that we are keeping this country safe from harm.
QUESTION: Thanks. My name is Andrei Sitov. I’m with the Russian News Agency ITAR-TASS here, and thank you, ma’am, for doing this and thanks to our friends at the FPC for arranging this.
My question is about the international adoptions, specifically from Russia. As you know, our governments are negotiating an agreement on this. The Russians actually say that it is basically ready. So my question to you is: Technically, when and where do you expect it to be signed if it is ready? And substantively, I think I have two major questions, the most important to my audience – first, the well-being of the child. Who under this new agreement will be responsible for making sure that a child is safe and sound and well somewhere in rural Nebraska or Ohio when the adopted family takes the child there? And related to that, will the child also have full legal rights in the U.S. such as the rights of American children adopted or born to their families?
And I also wanted for you to take a question. I’m sure you don’t have the statistics in front of you, but if later you could provide me with numbers for parental kidnappings from Russia to the U.S. and from U.S. to Russia, I would appreciate that.
Thank you, ma’am.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay. All right. Well, we are very close to finalizing a bilateral agreement with Russia on international child adoptions. We have had very good discussions with our Russian counterparts over the past few months, and I think that we are going to have an agreement that really does protect the welfare of the children, but it also protects the rights of parents as well. So we have been very pleased with the cooperation that we’ve had and, as I said, I think we’re very close now to a final agreement. Certainly, in our work in Consular Affairs, we are always interested in the welfare of the children involved, and so we want to make sure that we have built in safeguards. And the Russians have been very clear about wanting those kinds of safeguards in this agreement.
Basically, the way our system works here in the United States, we are going to look to the adoption service providers to really be following up and providing information as they – as children are adopted and come here to the United States.
QUESTION: These are private companies?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Those are basically private. But in order for them – for example, to continue doing adoptions out of Russia, they are going to have to meet certain requirements. And so that would certainly be one of them is providing post-placement reports.
QUESTION: What about legal rights, including the right --
MODERATOR: Please, wait for the microphone.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: The legal rights --
QUESTION: Legal rights of the child.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Yes. The children who are adopted and come here have all of the same rights as an American child. The child will actually become an American citizen and be entitled to full rights. And we’ll get back to you with the numbers that you asked for.
MODERATOR: We’re going to go all the way to the back.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Sean Flax with NHK. I’m wondering if you can give us an update on the child abduction cases with Japan and if you’re making any progress on that front. That would be great. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: We are working very, very closely with the Government of Japan in trying to encourage them to sign on to The Hague Convention on International Parental Child Abduction. We really think that this is important for them to do, and we have had any number of meetings here in Washington. Also, our ambassador in Tokyo has met with people in Tokyo. So it is a very high priority for us.
We do have a situation where we have many left-behind parents here in the United States who have not had any access to their children, some of them for years at a time. And this is a situation, as you can understand, that is very difficult, very frustrating for the left-behind parents. And we are working very closely with them and in Japan with the government to see what kind of solutions we might be able to find. This is a very high priority for us and something that I give a lot of time to, and Assistant Secretary Campbell in East Asian Affairs also gives a lot of attention to this particular issue.
QUESTION: Is there any progress?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: There – we understand that, following the earthquake and tsunami, that there had been some contact with children to – the taking-parents allowed that contact to take place so that the left-behind parent could be reassured that the child was safe. And so we have had reports of some access that did not occur earlier.
MODERATOR: We’re going to go to New York. New York, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Yeah. Good afternoon. My first question is about I visas, of course. Alexey Osipov from Israeli Novosty. Of course, like most of my colleagues, I am the holder of the I media visa, but every year I must go abroad to renew, to extend it. Why it’s not possible to extend the I visas on the territory of the United States? Because the normal international policy that overseas correspondents have three, four years abroad of his homeland.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking if it would be possible to renew visas here in the United States. Is that correct?
Okay. We used to offer that service here in our visa office in Washington. Unfortunately, after 9/11, because of many of the security procedures that we put in place, we were not able to continue that service.
QUESTION: I have two questions for – first question is on a moratorium in Kyrgyzstan on international adoption. You have been personally involved in trying to lift the moratorium because 65 American families are waiting for children for over two years now. I wonder what’s the status of your efforts there. And second, do you foresee any changes in requirements for Russian citizens in obtaining U.S. visas in coming years, month? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay. Regarding the adoption situation in Kyrgyzstan, it was actually Ambassador Susan Jacobs, who is our special advisor on children’s issues, who traveled to Kyrgyzstan recently to talk to them about this group of children. We are in very close contact with the government and with the families, trying to encourage the government to move ahead and allow these children to be adopted. We are getting very positive signals, which we’re happy about. No decision at this point, but Ambassador Jacobs felt after her last visit that we had, in fact, made a lot of progress. So we really have our fingers crossed that we’re going to see some movement with those children in the near future.
And then as far as visas for Russian citizens, we haven’t changed any of the requirements or procedures. I think we are, in fact, issuing more visas out of Russia these days than we did in the past, so we don’t expect that to change. And in Russia, as in other big countries, as I mentioned, we see the demand going up every single year, so we are aware of that and trying to make sure that we have sufficient resources in place to handle the demand.
QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up on that?
MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to go to the back here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Nataliia Kostina of the Ukrainian national news agency Ukrinform, and so my question about the Ukraine. Madam, how you estimate the process of liberalization for visas for Ukraine? And could you say what Ukraine must do more on this way? And probably some specific issue because we are on the way here to implementing action plan for liberalization visas with European Union. Maybe U.S. have some more specific demand or could you specify, please? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: We are in very close discussion with the Government of Ukraine. You know that we hold annual consular talks with the Government of Ukraine, and we have been talking about the possibility of increasing visa reciprocity. We are – I think we’re making some progress. We’ve asked the government to take certain steps to basically – on the American citizens services side because, again, I talked earlier about reciprocity. We have to be sure that American citizens are getting equal treatment so that if we expand the reciprocity for any particular country, we need to make sure that American citizens are benefiting from that.
So we still have some work to do with the Government of Ukraine on making sure that American citizens who visit Ukraine are basically getting equal treatment as Ukrainians. And I think that some of the steps that the Ukraine will take with regard to the EU visa agreement will also help in our discussions on expanding visa reciprocity.
MODERATOR: There is a follow-up question in New York. New York, please go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m again Alexey Osipov from Israeli Novosti, and my second and last question is about consular fees. It’s a normal practice around the world to pay the consular fee for visa, but in most of the U.S. consulates and embassies, the applicant, to set the appointment for interview, have to call to the special phone line or tomorrow to set the appointment via a specific webpage. And usually, it cost extra money that increase fees for visitor. Is it so important to make for a U.S. budget the money for phone calls and appointment setting for the interview?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Well, that’s a very legitimate question, and I am – first of all, let me explain that the processing fee, what we call our machine-readable visa fee, is a worldwide fee. So that is – everyone around the world who applies for a visa pays that fee, the same fee.
These additional fees are going to go away over the next couple of years because we are not happy with the system that you described, where applicants are having to pay extra money for – to call to make an appointment or to have their passport returned after a visa is issued. So we now have a global contract where we are going to be offering these services, and all of the fees will be included in that processing fee that I talked about. And so in the end, in many countries, our applicants are actually going to be paying less than they did before because they’re not going to be having to pay these user fees for the additional services. We call this our global support strategy, and as I said, it will be rolled out over a two-year period. It’s already in place in some countries such as Canada and Mexico, other places around the world. It will be coming to Israel. It will be coming to other countries over the next few months.
QUESTION: Another question’s from China. Gao Qi from CCTV. So in the coming months, especially through May to August, in China they’re going to be a very climax of visa applying. So according to some estimation, there’s going to be a breakthrough about – over a million this year. So especially for those students, I wonder, is there any progress this year or in the future for just a short their waiting time? So many students are – complain for this. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Well, that’s a very, very legitimate question. We – I mentioned that China is one of the countries that we’re really looking at right now, trying to figure out how we’re going to handle both the current demand and what we know is going to happen over the next 10, 15, even 20 years in China. So we’re very proud of what we have done on the student front in China. You may know that we have more Chinese students now in the United States than any other nationality. Our issuances have increased significantly in China over the last five years. So we’re very – I think we have a very good story to tell. What we will do with our China posts, just as we have done in previous years, is we will ask them to give priority to students when they are making visa appointments. And even with that, because there are so many students, and as you say, they all sort of come at the same time of year, it is – it’s a challenge for us.
But we are committed to making sure that students are not delayed so that they don’t miss the beginning of their classes. What we do encourage, though, is for the students to apply as soon as they can. They can apply up to 120 days before their program begins in the United States, so they should go ahead and be making appointments. And we will – we often times shift our resources around with China to – in order to handle the student workload, and we will also send additional officers to the China post if we need to in order to keep up. But we are really committed to avoid any delays that would cause the students to miss their course of study.
MODERATOR: Here in the front.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Maria Garcia with the Mexican news agency. My question is about the temporary workers visa. Have you any update, are addressing some problems like certain abuses of the employees here and in Mexico, the selling of the applications for instance?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: We spend a lot of time looking at the various temporary worker programs that we have in Mexico. There are regular meetings between the State Department and Homeland Security and the Department of Labor so that we can talk about the various issues. Any time there are reports of abuse, either of the individuals who are participating in the program or of the program itself, we take those very seriously. We follow up, we talk about any additional safeguards that we might need to put in place.
So yes, it is something that people are aware of and that they very closely monitor. We have several of our posts in Mexico that devote a lot of time trying to process the – especially the temporary agricultural workers, for example, who come to the United States, where they set aside a certain time of day or certain times during the week for people to come in for their visas. So it is something that we give a lot thought to and priority to.
MODERATOR: Here in the middle.
QUESTION: Asif Ismail, Global India newswire. While on temporary visas, there’s a complaint that a lot of visas H-1B visas are being denied in India by the consulate and the Embassy people whose visas have been approved here in the United States, the visas are rejected in India. Is there any crackdown, an unannounced one, going on? That’s one. Secondly, could you give an update on the Tri-Valley University? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay. On the issue of H-1B visas out of India, we – over 50 percent of the H&L visas that we issue worldwide are issued in India. So those two programs, I think, have really benefited Indian nationals over the years. You talk about a crackdown. What I can tell you is that our consulates or the Embassy in India had become aware of certain abuses of those two categories of visas, and they are taking measures to make sure that those abuses do not continue.
There’s an awful lot of outreach with the business community in India. We have a very good relationship with NASSCOM and other business groups there. We have – I even spoke to them when I – during a recent visit to Delhi. So we are very interested in strengthening the economic partnership that we have with India, and I think these visas are part of that. And so we don’t want people who might try to abuse the system to spoil it for everyone else. So we do a lot of presentations and outreach on trying to explain what the procedures are, what the requirements are, just to make sure that everyone is sort of playing by the book so that we’re all – we’re able to issue visas to qualified applicants.
MODERATOR: We’re going to go to New York. New York, go ahead please.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hello. Martin Suter from Switzerland, Sonntags Zeitung. I have a question concerning journalists. Many journalists stay in this country for many years, myself included. My question is: Is there any way that a journalist who, let’s say, stays in this country for 10, 20 years can stay on in retirement without actually being fully employed at an advanced age? Or – I mean, that’s the other way of looking at it – is there any way that a journalist who has been here for a long time can get a green card in a kind of easier fashion?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: This is really more of a question for the Department of Homeland Security, who has jurisdiction, of course, over people who are here in the United States. There are any number of ways to acquire permanent residency. I would recommend that you take a look at their website or talk to them to see if there’s a way that you could qualify under the existing regulations that they have.
QUESTION: Thanks. Thank you. Dmitry Kirsanov with ITAR-TASS. Ma’am, I was wondering if you could also address the issue of the planned – U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Beyrle announced mid-March that U.S. and Russia are trying to switch to two year multiple entry visas. He also said – and that was mid-March, mind you – that this agreement is almost done. Now, I wanted to ask you if this agreement is done, if it’s going to be signed by either the presidents at the next summit or a minister or whoever else. And secondly, what kind – what types of visas this agreement would deal with?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: The – we have been talking about an agreement with Russia. I think we have – we haven’t actually put forward a text of an agreement at this point. I think that there are certain things that we are interested in as far as American citizen travelers and visitors to Russia, and, yes, we are at the same time perhaps looking at increasing reciprocity. I can’t tell you whether that will be ready in time for the next summit, but it is something that is certainly under discussion.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: I’ll have to get back to you. I don’t have the actual agreement in front of me.
MODERATOR: We have a question here.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Hiroshi Ito with Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. Could you elaborate on the current situation of the evacuation allot for the United States – U.S. citizen in Japan? And I’m especially interested in the nuclear plant issue because that’s slightly different from the standard of the Japanese Government, as you know. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: We – in Japan, as you point out, we did face some unique challenges. We – let me just begin by saying that we had a very strong response by our consular team on the ground in Japan. We had officers who came from the Embassy and other consulates in Japan who joined together, who went up to the area most affected by the tsunami to help search for Americans.
We do know that we have two confirmed American citizens who died in the tsunami, but our main goal was to – we had many hundreds of requests from people. I mentioned in my opening remarks how we have call centers and we allow people to contact us by email with inquiries about relatives or loved ones who are in a crisis area. And so based on those inquiries, we had consular officers going out, actually knocking on doors, trying to locate people, trying to find out the status of American citizens. So there was – that went on for many, many days.
We also arranged to have buses that went up to Sendai in order to bring people down to Tokyo because we had heard that people were having trouble with transportation. We did have a couple of chartered flights out of Tokyo. We had people from the official mission who were leaving, and then we had some private Americans who also left. But most people were able to leave on commercial airlines.
So as far as the crippled nuclear plant, we were following the guidance put out by the Japanese Government, but also by officials here in the United States, and basically our recommendations were based on if this situation occurred in the United States, what advice would we be giving people. And so a combination of both what Japanese – the Japanese Government put out and then what our experts were telling us and we – so we tried to put that kind of guidance out.
We really depended on the experts in Japan, CDC, our Nuclear Regulatory Commission, other agencies who have that expertise, and we linked in to their websites so that people could get the best information possible. So it was something where we were constantly monitoring the situation and then pushing out the best information that we could.
QUESTION: A follow-up? Thank you. Donghui Yu with China Press. I have two questions. The first one is: Now that the United States has opened to the Chinese tourist group since 2007, did you find any overstay problem, as you mentioned last time, here in 2005? And how many tourist visas have been issued to the Chinese last year?
Secondly is a follow-up question. I think the Financial Times yesterday was talking about a particular procedure – expedite visa procedure for senior Chinese official and their family. That’s called a U.S. official set. “Given the current climates of cancelled meetings and cancelled U.S.-funded programs in China, we are reviewing our procedures for approving visas for Chinese officials and their families.” What’s your comment on this saying? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay. I will get back to you with the number of tourist visas that we issued. I can tell you overall that we issued more than 800,000 visas in China last year, but we will get back to you with exact numbers.
On the issue of the officials – someone had asked earlier about that – basically, we don’t foresee any change in our procedures. We expect to continue processing visas in China, just as we have in the past. There is a program that allows Chinese officials to be expedited. That’s been in place for a number of years and I expect that to continue. I don’t see any changes in that.
QUESTION: How about the overstay problem?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: The overstay problem? I don’t have the latest statistics from the Department of Homeland Security. My sense is that it is not a huge problem.
MODERATOR: In the back.
QUESTION: Maria Tabak, Ria Novosti news agency. A follow-up for the question about visa agreement with Russia: So I wonder how critical, actually, are the changes going to be, how serious they are going to be. Are you speaking about – talking about increasing of the duration of tourist visa and – so how long time it might last? So could you give just some details of what United States wants it to look like?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: I’m really not at liberty to talk about the specifics of the agreement because it’s still under discussion. I can tell you in general that our interest always, whenever we sign these agreements, is to make sure that American citizens are getting equal treatment. And so that’s going to be our focus.
We want to make sure – and when we talk about this, we’re also talking about procedures inside the country. For example, here in the United States, a Russian visitor can come in on a visa and will be given an authorized length of stay at the port of entry. Sometimes it’s six months. And that’s it; there’s no registration, there is – you’re free to travel about in the United States for that length of time. For Americans who live in Russia or sometimes just visiting Russia, there are different procedures where people – if they go to a different location, perhaps, have to register.
And so those are the kinds of things that we want to look at to say how can we make it easier for American citizen travelers – whether they’re tourists or businesspeople, how can we make it as easy for them as possible. So that’s sort of where we will be coming from as we talk about this agreement.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador Jacobs. My name is Hui Ju with China Youth Daily. Thank you. My question – and of course, in the past several years, we have seen more and more visas was issued to Chinese residents and tourists. That is positive for China-U.S. relations, of course. And – but we also see still a huge amount of visas was refused by the consulate and Embassy in China. I’m just wondering, is there any specific quotas or any limitations for the Chinese applications?
And second question: That’s – in January this year, the – both government has signed agreement to give more convenience to the Chinese students to apply for the visas to the United States. Could you elaborate more details about what measure will be taken to fulfill that? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Okay. To answer your first question, no, there are no quotas at all. In fact, you might be surprised to know that about 85 percent of people who apply for visas in China get visas. So --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: Total. So it’s a fairly low refusal rate, and I think that gets back to the question about whether we have a lot of people who are overstaying. I think that that overstay rate is pretty low, so that’s why we are able to issue more visas. Basically, it’s the same qualifications, and if people meet the qualifications, they will get a visa.
As far as facilitation, I mentioned for students that we do give them priority when setting visa appointments. One of the other changes that we are making – and not just in China, but around the world – is for people who have a visa, and that visa has not expired within the past year, then they can get a new visa without having another interview. So this is what we are trying to implement right now in China. As you can imagine sometimes in China, because of the large numbers, the logistics of doing these kinds of things are a little bit difficult for us.
But that is our goal. We want to – for people who have a visa, and if they want to renew the visa and it has not expired within a year’s time, it’s the same category, they’re going to the same school, nothing has really changed, then we hope to be able to renew that visa without bringing the student in for another interview. So that will be a huge change, and we’re trying to implement that right now at our China posts.
MODERATOR: We have time for maybe one more question before we break.
QUESTION: Maybe I could – thank you. Maybe I could revisit the issue of reciprocity that you touched up on a few times in talking about visas. My impression is that any country would give the U.S. a reciprocal regime as benevolent as the U.S. would want, including Russia, where the evidence of that was the recent proposal made, half in jest it seemed, but probably very serious at heart of a visa-free regime with Russia, when the Vice President was traveling.
So basically, my question is – to you: Are you – first, do you want to see this at least as the goal of the process we are embarking on, like the 10-year visas or visa-free regime with Russia? And how long that may take? And then – and secondly, on the – specifically, you made this argument specifically in answer to a journalist’s questions, and I should have tried to find this out beforehand, but I didn’t. Do you know if there – if the journalists, American journalists in Russia, are subject to similar visa restrictions as foreign journalists here, including the need to leave the country to get a new visa? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBS: I don’t know what the requirements are for American journalists in Russia, but we can certainly find out.
We don’t ordinarily do bilateral visa agreements. We try to treat every country around the world equally. And as far as reciprocity goes, our goal is always to get the maximum reciprocity. Why? Because that’s the biggest benefit to American citizens. So if we can get a country – convince a country to let Americans come and go for 10 years without having to get a new visa, we’re happy to do a 10-year visa.
And so we’re always working from the perspective of trying to get the very best for American citizen travelers. And if we find that another government is interested in expanding the reciprocity for their nationals, then it’s a wonderful fit and we can work together and revise our reciprocity schedule.
So I think right now, our goal with Russia is to try to make sure that we’re on a level playing field, that Americans and Russians are more or less being treated equally. And once we get there, then maybe we can talk about expanding some more.
MODERATOR: Thank you all very much. Thank you, Assistant Secretary Jacobs. And with that, we can – we’ll conclude and I will be sure to send you all the briefing transcript as soon as possible. Thank you.
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