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West Africans Applying for US Visas Feel Increased Scrutiny - 2002-09-04


The impact of the September 11 attacks has been felt all around the world by people from all walks of life. For one thing it has meant tighter scrutiny of people applying for visas to enter the United States. In West Africa, some young Muslim men believe they are being kept out of the United States because of their religion, but U.S. officials say that is not true.

Moussa Kone, 25, arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan early on a Tuesday morning, hoping, like scores of other people who have lined up there, to get a visa to go to the United States.

Clutching an envelope containing his application and a letter of invitation from a school in the United States, he approached a window at the consulate. After a few minutes, the consular official returned saying Mr. Kone's application for a student visa had been rejected.

Mr. Kone, a Muslim, said he could not understand why he did not get a visa. He drew his own conclusions.

"It could be that they saw my beard and my Muslim name, Moussa," he said. "After the events at the World Trade Center, maybe they thought I could be implicated because of my Muslim name."

Mr. Kone said he was asked a question that has made him suspicious.

"They asked me what my religion was. I told them I was a Muslim," he said. "Following the events of September 11, I think that is why they asked. Why else would they ask me what my religion is?"

Whether based on fact or not, complaints like that are often heard outside U.S. embassies in West Africa among Muslim young men who are, for various reasons, denied visas.

U.S. officials acknowledge that in some cases, consular officers do ask to know a person's religion. But they say the information is used as part of establishing an overall profile of the applicant. They say it is not used as criteria for denying a person a visa.

"I can definitely confirm that we do not deny persons visas based on religion, race, or gender," Ed Dickens, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department in Washington said. "When someone is denied a visa, we always explain to them the provision under the law under which they were denied and we give them a short explanation of what that provision is. We do not explain beyond the terms of the provision, what went into the decision to deny them. I do not understand why people would not know why they have been denied or why they would speculate that they have been denied for religious reasons."

Several of the hijackers who took part in last year's attacks entered the United States on student visas. As a result, U.S. authorities have taken a number of measures to improve the way they screen applicants.

Measures have included enhanced training of consular officials and more in-depth background checks on applicants. The added measures have meant more scrutiny for applicants and sometimes longer waiting periods.

But for applicants like Moussa Kone the visa denials feel like discrimination.

"So, I have become a victim. I and my Muslim brothers," he said. "I had nothing to do with the attacks. That was a political matter involving people in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden, and I do not know who else. I was not involved. The attacks were a cruel thing, the killing of those innocent people who had families like we do. We all cried here."

U.S. officials say that more often than not, the reason for denying visas has to do with the applicant not providing convincing evidence that he or she has sufficient financial means to travel, or that he or she intends to return to the home country. Those are the same reasons for which visas might have been denied before the September 11 attacks. But that is not how it feels to many applicants.

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