Florida homeowners, businesses criticize INS's proposed six-month admission period

Sunday, June 16, 2002

By JENNIFER SERGENT, sergentj@shns.com

WASHINGTON When the Immigration and Naturalization Service proposed to eliminate the automatic six-month admission period for foreign tourist and business visas, it classified the proposal as "not a major rule" that wouldn't carry a significant economic impact.

Thousands of people disagree.

In 635 letters and thousands more e-mails, they are telling the agency that the restriction will drive away billions in tourist spending and business investment.

Only one letter, from an immigration reform group, supports the plan.

The new rule would grant INS inspectors at ports of entry the power to determine how long visa-holders should stay. Under current rules, visa holders get a six-month window. Inspectors determine whether they are permitted to enter and use that window.

INS PROPOSAL

There is much confusion surrounding the terms of the proposed new visa regulations, which the INS is expected to finalize within the month. Below is a summary of who is affected and how.

n The rule affects all visitors and business people from countries where the U.S. State Department requires a visa to enter the United States.

n It does not apply to residents of the 28 "visa waiver" countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, where visitors automatically receive a 90-day window without needing a visa. The rule would apply to them if they wanted to stay longer than 90 days, in which case they must obtain a visa.

n The rule also does not apply to Canadians, who can stay in the United States for up to six months without needing documentation.

n The rule applies to everyone who wants to extend their stay past what they originally requested, or the six months granted to Canadians.

n The rule sets specific criteria that visitors must meet to receive extensions, which can go no longer than six months each. The criteria include: unexpected circumstances arising out of one's control; acute illness in the visitor or his immediate family, or if the visitor is in the country specifically to receive medical care; religious missionary work; the establishment of a new office in the United States; or seasonal property ownership.

n If the visitor has applied for an extension but the INS hasn't yet ruled on it, he can legally stay in the United States past the original time permitted.

n Visitors can enter on tourist visas as prospective students, as long as they state their intent at the outset and apply for a student visa once accepted at an "approved" school. The consular office abroad must also have noted on the visa that the visitor is a prospective student.

n The student provision of the new regulation also applies to Canadians.

"We see this as just an extension of that responsibility," INS spokesman Chris Bentley said. If it's unclear how long a visitor wants to stay, or his request is not "fair and reasonable," the rule says, the visitor will be given 30 days to travel in the United States.

"Because the vast majority of (tourist and business travelers) do not have a stated need to remain in the United States for more than 30 days, it is reasonable to expect that most will depart within that time frame," the proposal states.

Hundreds of people with relatives in far-away countries such as India and China wrote letters, panicked that their loved ones might be limited to a 30-day stay. Then, the trip wouldn't be worth the years it took them to save for it, much less the long plane ride and resulting jet lag.

"There's a total lack of due process," said Yibing Wu, a Chinese American in Seattle. "It was not a change established by consulting the immigrant community or having any idea what people want."

Others who own seasonal homes and condos in Florida also wrote in, concerned that their investments will be ruined if they can spend only a month at a time at their U.S. homes.

"We are all desperate, now knowing what to do," wrote a group of seven Swiss couples who own property in Naples. "We all own condos, cars, golf memberships and sure hate to lose so many American friends acquired in the past years!"

INS officials insist those concerns are based on a misperception of what the rule actually says.

"In the case of individuals who have the misperception that 30 days is the limit, that just is absolutely inaccurate," Bentley said. For property owners who spend their winters in Florida, he added, "in no way will the new rule jeopardize a person's ability to do that."

Basically, he said, if a tourist enters the country and tells the inspection agent that he's here to visit his family for four months, he will get four months. Unless they have a questionable record with the INS, visitors will get what they ask for up to six months.

The new rule is merely designed to keep better track of people while they are here for national security reasons, Bentley said.

"It's allowing us to know that people are coming here for express purposes for express periods of time," he said.

Besides the new rule, the INS is also developing an automated entry-exit tracking system to keep track of who's coming in and who's going out and who's staying too long.

Even as the INS seeks to allay people's concerns, many say the mere perception that the U.S. government wants to restrict foreign travel is enough to deter people.

"A lot of people just will not take the hassle," said Ellen White, president of the Ontario-based Canadian Snowbird Association.

Canadians do not require a visa to enter the United States. They are questioned at the border before coming over, and don't need to file paperwork unless they want to stay longer than six months.

But the rule has led Canadians to believe that they might be questioned more pointedly or even turned back under a new atmosphere created by the regulation.

White has received numerous letters from her members saying they are selling their U.S. homes as a result. And she's getting many more inquiries about travel to Portugal and Mexico rather than the United States.

White wrote a letter to the INS, asking that the final rule include a clause specifically addressing Canadian concerns and telling them what kind of documentation they should bring to the border so inspectors will grant them the time they want.

John Diehl, a Boca Raton architect, said he isn't placated by the INS explanations, either.

"That's what they say, but that's not what we understand," he said.

Since the 9-11 disasters, Diehl said some of his employees who have families in Latin America report that their family members are already having a tougher time coming into the country due to more aggressive border inspection agents.

Also at stake is a large portion of builders' incomes, he said. The Gold Coast Builders Association reports that foreigners purchase 10 percent of the new homes its members build.

Realtors are upset for the same reason.

The main concern for both groups is that visitors won't be able to justify to INS inspectors an imprecise length of stay and uncertain whereabouts while they look for a place to spend winters and then scout out and purchase a home.

"With any legislation or any rule, you always have to think, worst-case scenario," said Jennifer English, vice president of government affairs for the Realtors Association of the Palm Beaches.

"It's the spirit of the rule," English said. "We've heard rumblings that the doors wouldn't be as open as before to allow (visitors) to stay here."

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