September 7, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Arun C Vakil

Arun C Vakil

A year after the September 11 terror attacks, people the world over have reconciled to an altered set of rules. Travel is no longer easy and governments have exercised stringent rules to keep suspected terrorists at bay.

Leading the way with strict travel regulations and heightened security is the United States. The past year has seen several well-known Indians like actors Aamir Khan, Kamal Haasan and parliamentarian Somnath Chatterjee being questioned at American airports.

Dr Arun C Vakil, vice-president and chairman, programmes, of the Indo-American Society, has compiled a ready reckoner for Indians travelling to USA in an updated version of his book Gateway to America.

Well-informed about America -- its lifestyle, education, history, geography, political systems, and visa regulations -- Vakil has travelled throughout that country several times. His Web site also gives information to people travelling to USA.

In an interview with Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai, he spoke about how travel rules have changed in the United States after 9/11.

What was the need to update your book, Gateway to America?

This update has come after three years. The last one was in 1999. This particular update has been made because of several changes, which have been made in procedures and policies for obtaining a US visa, post-9/11. And in order to help people going from India to US specially after 9/11, this book was needed.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the US agency that deals with immigration issues, has increased its bureaucracy. From having one application form for non-immigrant visas, they have added three additional forms. The first form is a normal form, the second form is applicable to male applicants between the ages of 16 and 45. They have to fill this form, which asks them if they have had any military training in the past. They have to mention whether they have stayed in any country of the Middle East in the past or if they have visited countries of the Middle East or passed by these countries. [If so] there will be increased interrogation. Also, they ask whether the person has knowledge of rifles and explosives.

The third form is on the same lines as the second form. Students in general going from the Middle East and Asia are screened more closely. And if they are from the Muslim community, they are checked more closely. Even if your name resembles some of the terrorists, they take more precaution.

Can you give some examples?

My name is Arun Vakil. When I recently visited USA with my wife in March-April 2002, I was heavily searched because I travelled a lot within USA. My last name is 'Vakil', and if you recall the last name of the Taliban foreign minister was Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Though they were satisfied that I had no link with Muttawakil, still I was thoroughly checked. Our checked luggage was checked in a big anti-explosives machine. I had to remove the contents of our handbags and it was searched thoroughly. Not only that, we were physically checked. They checked my wallet and my wife's purse. I was told to unbuckle and they checked my belt too. I was also asked to remove my shoes.

But didn't you tell them you were from India?

They had my passport and they knew that. But what they told me was that they were doing a random check. They are abusing the word 'random'. They say random, but it is intentional. I get a feeling that in future unless a person has some family member or work in the US, he [will not] be able to go to USA. And a tourist will think twice before going to America because the checks at airports give you a repulsive and insulting feeling.

How different is your book from your earlier version?

I have given information about the procedures before leaving Indian shores and after reaching US shores. Also, various laws, which have been changed post-9/11. I have explained all this in the book.

How different is the situation from the pre-9/11 days?

Very much! When you land at a US airport, the first person you meet is the immigration inspector. Pre-9/11, the immigration officer saw your face, passport, and allowed you to go by giving you a stamp for a six-month stay in the US. Now that has changed. The stay that is allowed is only for 30 days. There is also detailed interrogation of people coming from Asia and the Middle East. How long will they stay in the US? Where will they stay? All such type of questions. And after the 30 days' stay in the US, they have to inform the immigration office on where they are staying.

But they give you 90 days' stay also if you are on non-immigrant visa.

Yes, if you are able to explain at the airport what is the purpose of such a long visit to the US. But typically, it is 30 days. And if it is an extended period, you have to register at the immigration office. The other thing is the change of address. You have to inform the immigration office if you are changing your address from the given address at the time of entry in the USA.

Even if you are changing your address in the same city?

Yes! Even if you are changing your address to the next building. If you fail to do that, it is a deportable offence. That means that unless you [can] convince the authorities why you did it, you can be deported.

So how has USA changed after 9/11?

I think there is a semblance of fear. And what was known as a country of freedom is not as free as it used to be. There are more controls and fear in the US today. I used to see America as a place where there was happiness. People coming to the US were looking for more opportunity and freedom. But I didn't see that after my visit to the US post-9/11. There is gloom, there is fear. People are there because they have to be there and they cannot come back and do better in their own country.

In New York when you meet Indian or Bangladeshi taxi drivers, they say you are lucky if you are from India. They feel they have to remain in the US because the only purpose of their stay is to earn dollars. But their business has also suffered because there is a 20 per cent decline in tourists post-9/11. But I feel things will pick up later.

What is the change for obtaining student visas for USA post-9/11?

Earlier a student could go to USA on a visitor's visa, take admission in a US university, and change his status from a visitor's visa to F1 visa -- which is meant for students. This is no longer possible. You have to get back to your country and apply for a fresh student visa, unless you have declared at the port of entry in USA that you have come for university shopping. If you get admission to a university, you can stay in the country on a student visa. If this happens, the immigration officer will put a stamp on your passport to say 'prospective student'. And then one can change the status.

But student has to reach the American university in 30 days and register himself/herself from the time of his/her entry in USA. Failure to do so will go for an FBI check. At present all these records are vociferously followed. I think there are 73,000 new employees recruited by the INS to do such jobs. They have increased their budget three times from some $2 million to $6.8 million in just surveillance.

But the INS sent student visa approvals for two September 11 hijackers, including Mohammad Atta, to a Florida flight school six months after the attacks, isn't it?

You see, that was part of the system. In America the system is fantastic and is like a tunnel. Once you are in a tunnel you cannot withdraw, you cannot take it back. It so happened that they applied before they attacked the World Trade Centre and it must have gone in the system and nobody noticed it then. It was only identified when it came out of the tunnel.

Have you come across cases where a student couldn't get admission in the US because of excessive precautions exercised by the US government post-9/11?

As far as students are concerned, I am seeing that they are subject to increased scrutiny. I know of a student who had visited Yemen for some family get-together. When he applied for a student visa his application was rejected. I thought this was a very borderline case.

But isn't it true that the interview time given to prospective American visa-seekers is hardly a minute? In a minute they decide whether a person deserves a visa or not.

It is an unfortunate fact and one has to accept it. There are 4-5 officers at the US consulate and there are 500 applicants a day. Sometimes, in a busy season, there are 1,200 to 1,500 applications and they have very little time. There is nothing you can do about it. Therefore, I feel a person who applies for a visa has to apply correctly and prepare himself. This is because you have to sell yourself and have some kind of training. In the Indo-American Society, we run visa seminars especially for students on how to apply for a visa because sometimes your body language can go against you.

Photograph: Jewella Miranda; Design: Uday Kuckian

America's war on terror

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