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U.S. turns foreign journalists away over visa confusion

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering    

U.S. turns foreign journalists away over visa confusion

  • The U.S. government, which requires foreign journalists to obtain a special I-visa to enter the country and does not allow them to participate in a visa waiver program, holds all the power in deciding who gets to report on American soil.

Nov. 26, 2003 — Foreign journalists are being unnecessarily hassled and turned away from the U.S. because of a visa requirement the American Society of Newspaper Editors calls an “obstruction” to newsgathering.

Three journalists from Australia were recently detained at American airports and sent back home for not having an I-visa, a requirement for journalists entering the U.S. Angered by what it says is the government’s heavy-handed approach to immigration laws, the ASNE is sending letters to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to call on Congress to extend the nation’s visa waiver program to members of the foreign press.

“There is nothing new with the I-visa,” said Kevin Goldberg, attorney for the ASNE. “I think what is new is that they (U.S. immigration officials) are enforcing it pretty hard.”

Natalie Apostolou, an editor for Communications Day Australia, Dan Kaufman, a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald, and Sue Smethurst, an editor at Australia’s New Idea, were each refused entry into the country, in separate incidents, after U.S. immigration officials at American airports noted they did not have I-visas.

According to published reports, all three journalists were unaware that they needed an I-visa because they had previously traveled to the U.S. without one.

Under the visa waiver program, citizens from 27 countries can travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days for tourism or business without a visa. However, a provision of the visa waiver program says “representatives of the foreign press, radio, film or other information media” cannot travel to the U.S. without an I-visa. The program is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security and took over the duties of the Immigration and Naturalization Service after that bureau’s functions were moved from the Department of Justice.

The I-visa program has been law since 1986, although, according to Scott Bosley, executive director of the ASNE, immigration officials have long disregarded the rules. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, security at airports across the nation has been significantly tightened.

The problem, Goldberg says, is that foreign reporters aren’t guaranteed an I-visa, and they can be denied one without ever being told why. Goldberg says the ASNE is concerned whenever the government “gets to decide who a journalist is and what they can do.”

“We don’t want the government to decide who a journalist is, in this or any other capacity,” he added.

The visa waiver program — a pilot program that also dates to 1986 and that underwent minor revisions annually until Congress made it permanent in 2002 — has included the same I-visa requirement for years, said Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Shannon said the rules for foreign reporters to travel to the U.S. are clear, and although some reporters continue to travel without the proper visa, the rules are widely known. Information is available on the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site, www.dhs.gov.

“We issue over 14,000 I-visas every year . . . it’s not that journalists are not aware,” Shannon said.

According to Bosley, greater public awareness of the government’s efforts to keep foreign journalists out of the country is what will likely lead to the greatest changes in the law.

“More people, besides us, have to raise their concerns for this issue to arise at the level we want,” he said.

VR

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