Immigration amendments offered by Durbin, Reid stir Olympic hopes

Several amendments backed by the travel industry and filed to the Senate immigration bill could help U.S. cities land hosting rights to major international events, including the 2016 Olympics.

Sponsors of the amendments are from states with economies that rely heavily on foreign travelers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Durbin has a keen interest in helping Chicago put its best foot forward with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in 2009 will select a host for the 2016 games.

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Those who support the amendments say New York’s failed bid to host the 2012 Olympics was hampered by perceptions that the U.S. is hostile to visitors, and contend Chicago’s bid could meet similar problems. Given that Reid and Durbin are sponsors, they hope the amendments, which are all intended to make U.S. visa and entry procedures speedier and more efficient, could receive floor time or at a minimum be included in a manager’s amendment to the controversial immigration bill.

Supporters of New York’s failed bid say there were other reasons why London won the 2012 Olympics, but concede that negative international perceptions contributed to the IOC’s decision.

“I think there is no question about that,” said New York City Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who founded the group behind New York’s Olympic bid. He said he wouldn’t “over-state it as the reason we lost,” but said stories about intrusive customs procedures, long lines, rude behavior and difficulties in even obtaining visa applications at local consulates created a difficult atmosphere.

“We really need to change the perception that the U.S. is an unwelcome destination,” said Steve Bull of the U.S. Olympic Committee, a leading member of the Discover American Partnership, a coalition of travel and lodging groups lobbying for changes to U.S. visa and entry policies. He credited the administration with taking several steps that could help alleviate the problem, but acknowledged long waits in the visa application process remain an issue.

Stewart Verdery, a former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who worked on New York’s bid but now lobbies for the travel industry, said that city faced a skeptical audience with the IOC.

“We definitely got the sense that one of the issues in play was it would be hard to get into the country, that there would be too may embarrassing situations of people getting caught in the system,” he said. “People were skeptical of our promises.”

Verdery said he has heard some say that until the United States improves visa and entry policies the U.S. will not get another Olympics. “If you talk to Durbin and other political folks in Illinois, they are worried and they have a right to be worried,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Customs Border Protection, Kelly Klundt, said the administration has taken many significant steps to facilitate travel to the U.S., including the development of a model port at the Houston airport. She said DHS would not comment on how perceptions will influence “any event five years from now.”

Durbin’s amendment, cosponsored by Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would require the secretary of state to issue an annual report on incidents where those requesting visas did not get interviews during the 30 days following their request. This is a key complaint of Discover America, which wants to reduce waits to no more than 30 days.

Reid’s amendment calls for State Department to analyze factors affecting such delays, and asks for recommendations on additional personnel or resources to ensure speedier responses to requests.

It also would have the secretary of Homeland Security establish at the 20 largest U.S. airports a model ports-of-entry program to provide “a more efficient and welcoming international arrival process” to promote business and tourist travel to the U.S.
DHS also would be authorized to hire 200 Customs and Border Protection officers to address staff shortages at those airports, though no funds would be appropriated.

A third amendment, filed by Martinez and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), would allow some visa application interviews to be conducted through videoconferencing rather than in person, provided that certain information is provided by the applicant.

Discover America, whose membership includes several hotel chains, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the National Restaurant Association, is lobbying for all three amendments. While none would represent the “silver bullet” killing negative perceptions of the U.S., the group’s executive director, Geoff Freeman, said they would send the message the U.S. is making its system more efficient.

Freeman also said it would show the International Olympic Committee the U.S. is taking its commitment to make improvements to its system seriously.