The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) testified at an April 4 hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform that focused on the business impact of visa-approval delays and solicited recommendations for process improvements.
In testimony, AEM President Dennis Slater commended the federal government’s focus on border security but encouraged the State Department to implement more business-friendly policies that would eliminate current inconsistent and arbitrary procedures. This action, he said, would bring more overseas customers into the U.S. to buy American-made products.
AEM represents the off-road equipment manufacturing industry (construction, agriculture, forestry, mining and utility). It operates some of the largest trade exhibitions in the U.S. and worldwide, attracting tens of thousands of qualified international attendees ready to purchase equipment and related products and services.
“Our international attendance at recent shows would have been much higher, but many qualified business prospects encountered significant problems obtaining visas. Some in delegations became so discouraged over the delays and perceived rude treatment that they dropped out of the process. They told us they would never come to the U.S. again to spend their money but would go to a trade show in Europe or Asia instead,” Slater said.
Among AEM’s recommendations to the House committee were to differentiate business applicant procedures from general ones and to implement additional timesaving processes for frequent international business visitors, which include trade show attendees.
Other suggestions offered were to allocate more staff to high-applicant posts and provide more training, prepare applicants better for the focus of the visa interview and to make the process more transparent and accountable.
In his testimony, Slater noted that smaller and medium-size exhibitors at AEM-run exhibitions are particularly affected by visa delays. These companies rely on trade shows as an important option to reach many potential customers at one time, especially to showcase large non-consumer products such as construction machines.
“Our industry’s customers want to ‘kick the tires’ just as an automobile buyer would, and it’s not feasible for smaller companies to ship a piece of equipment overseas for pre-purchase inspection or to fly in many potential customers themselves,” he explained.
Slater also told of an AEM focus on attracting Chinese and Indian customers to its exhibitions because of growing interest in these markets by association members, and he provided documented evidence of visa-approval problems for its CONEXPO-CON/AGG show as well as anecdotal evidence for its ICUEE—the Demo Expo and World of Asphalt exhibitions.
Slater described numerous instances of visa approval problems encountered by potential trade show attendees, despite extensive efforts by AEM staff, both in the U.S. and in its China office, to facilitate the process.
AEM documented a 20% refusal rate for CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2005, which Slater called “far too high” and that showed a great deal of variability among consulates and patterns of refusal by gender and age (more men approved than women and more older people approved than younger).
The association has stepped up its efforts in the past few years to increase government awareness of the negative business impact of current visa policies. This includes cooperative efforts with the International Association for Exposition Management (IAEM). AEM’s Slater is a past chairman of IAEM.
AEM also provides potential show attendees with a variety of information to help them navigate the approval process, including letters of invitation. The association works with individual member companies to help them obtain visas for international customers.
AEM’s hearing testimony included these suggestions for the State Department:
Allocate more staff to high-applicant posts and provide more training. AEM noted that many of the consistency problems, long wait times and perceived rudeness might be solved by the allocation of more staff and by providing more training to incumbents, as suggested by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Committee—“Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit from Improvements in Staffing and Information Sharing” (Sept. 2005 Page 17).
Prepare applicants more thoroughly for the focus of the interview. AEM received many stories about applicants arriving with a business case for attending a trade show, only to be asked personal questions about children, marital status and the like. The association suggested more public outreach by the State Department about what information needs to be provided related to a 214(b) visa approval.
Make 214(b) refusals more transparent. AEM has asked in letters to Secretaries Rice and Chertoff that State and the Department of Homeland Security take measures to reduce the seemingly arbitrary use of section 214(b) denials as a catch-all category by establishing specific criteria for 214(b) denial, providing for consular officer explanation of denials and building accountability into the system.
Differentiate business visa applicant procedures. AEM recommended requiring the use of the best practices described in State cable 225608, Oct. 10, 2004, including the establishment of a “Business Window” at posts, time block set-asides, business facilitation units and group appointments.
Streamline the process for business applicants who have received and complied with the terms of temporary business visas in the past, such as regular trade show attendees. Many trade show attendees are regulars at these events over the years and yet are subjected with each application to the same rigorous screening as an unknown applicant. AEM noted it might be a better allocation of limited government resources to develop a frequent-applicant program, like a frequent-traveler program in the U.S., allowing regular business visitors to the U.S. to undergo one thorough screening and then limit the number of interviews necessary for additional visas.