July 28, 2004
Commissioner Robert C. Bonner
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Washington, DC 20229
The Honorable Colin L. Powell
Department of State
2201 C St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20520
The Honorable Tom Ridge
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528
We are writing on behalf of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Association of Health Care Journalists to express our outrage about the fact that foreign journalists from 27 friendly nations must obtain visas before entering the United States.
This policy violates one of the central, bedrock values of our free society — the commitment to a free press, operating without interference from the government. Without this commitment, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, our democracy would surely die. Yet the current policy singles out journalists for discriminatory treatment, implying they are more of a threat than ordinary tourists or business people. While we appreciate the need to secure our borders, we believe this practice is counterproductive and wrong, and should end immediately.
As a practical matter, the visa requirement also puts severe roadblocks in the path of any foreign journalist who wants to work here. According to a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the current backlog for processing journalist visa applications is about one to two months; this makes it impossible for anyone to come here on the spur of the moment to cover breaking news. Further, Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 214.2(i), requires foreign journalists to get permission from an immigration official before changing employers or the medium in which they work. This requirement is especially onerous for freelance journalists who may pick up assignments from a variety of employers, and it is a completely unacceptable restriction on press freedom.
As things stand today, ordinary citizens from 27 friendly nations can come here to work or vacation for up to 90 days without visas. But journalists from those nations must get special visas, called "I" visas, before leaving their home countries. Although this requirement has been on the books for some time, it was rarely enforced until after the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then, more than a dozen journalists, most from France or Britain, have been detained, interrogated, body-searched and held in cells — sometimes in conditions that were uncomfortable and humiliating — before being sent back to their home countries, all because they lacked visas.
Following an international outcry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced in May that port directors will have discretion to allow a journalist from a friendly nation into the United States without a visa, but only once; an "I" visa is still required for any subsequent trips.
While this change is a step in the right direction, it doesn't go far enough. Requiring a special visa raises the appearance — and, indeed, the possibility — that U.S. officials could discriminate against journalists whose coverage they perceive to be unfavorable to the government. It puts the United States in the unsavory company of repressive regimes that restrict the press. And it is bound to alienate people all over the world who look to the United States as a beacon of democracy and free expression. In these dangerous times, it's more important than ever to show the world that our nation has the courage to uphold the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
We ask that you change the interpretation of the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow journalists from friendly countries to enter the U.S. without visas, on the same basis as their countrymen, and with no restrictions on their work. If that can't be done, we ask that you work with Congress to change Section 101(a)(15) I and any other relevant sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act to achieve the same end.
Thanks for your consideration.
Chair, Freedom of Information Committee
National Association of Science Writers
National Association of Science Writers
Society of Environmental Journalists
Association of Health Care Journalists