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Border Net Has Become a Noose, U.S. Firms Say

Post-9/11 delays in obtaining visas are driving away foreign clients and talent.

October 16, 2004|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

Aossey couldn't get visas this year for any of his top dozen foreign clients to visit his facility and attend the nation's biggest restaurant trade show, in Chicago. Last year, only two were able to get into the country.

"I've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in business over the last three years," said the frustrated 62-year-old, who recently lost an order for $175,000 worth of bakery equipment to a Belgian firm because his Saudi customer couldn't get its Egyptian engineer into the United States.

Such an example illustrates how closely the U.S. economy is connected to the rest of the world.

Dresser-Rand's Houston-based controls division builds 40 to 50 highly customized systems a year that operate turbines, generators and compressors used primarily in the oil industry. The company also has an international team that can handle emergencies, meet with clients, and design, build and install machinery.

The unit's 18 engineers are based in seven locations around the world, and among them they carry passports from seven countries and speak eight languages. Many are from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

In the past, getting a U.S. visa for a foreign employee or customer took at most a few days. But after Sept. 11, Washington began scrutinizing prospective visitors more closely, particularly men between the ages of 16 and 45 from Middle Eastern or Muslim countries. Those locations are major customers for the oil industry, as well as U.S. firms such as Boeing.

Applications for visas to visit Dresser-Rand's headquarters disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole. The company's foreign-born employees also had problems reentering the United States, particularly if they were returning from a country deemed a security risk. One of its engineers, an Egyptian who has been working legally in the United States for four years, has been delayed at the airport for as long as 10 hours on numerous occasions. With Dresser charging $2,000 a day for the services of an engineer, the losses add up quickly.

"I'm not saying that security measures shouldn't be in place," said Elizabeth Dickson, an immigration advisor who works in the New Jersey offices of Ingersoll-Rand, the parent of Dresser-Rand. "I think they should. But I would certainly hope that everybody should not be treated as a terrorist." Dickson advises foreign customers to go to their visa interviews with information about Dresser-Rand's operations and products, and she sends supporting documentation. But often, she is told, U.S. consular officers don't even look at the papers.

"I don't think it makes us secure at all," Dickson said. "People keep telling me they get 30-second interviews. How much do you learn in 30 seconds?"

After Sept. 11, Dresser-Rand found it difficult to get visas from a number of countries, including Brazil, for employees who were born in the Middle East or Muslim countries elsewhere. Steve Churbock, 43, manager of the controls field services team, said Dresser-Rand was forced to forgo bidding on a number of contracts valued at $300,000 to $400,000 apiece.

The visa problems also have hurt Dresser-Rand's cash flow. Since its equipment is sophisticated and custom-made, customers visit the factory to oversee final testing, a process that can take two weeks. And they don't pay until they're satisfied.

"Enough is enough," Churbock said. "We're being choked by these policies, and Americans don't have a lot of friends left in the world."

A joint-venture operator of one of Malaysia's largest oil and gas drilling operations waited more than five months to get a visa for its engineers to collect a $350,000 upgrade for a gas turbine generator from Dresser-Rand. Another Malaysian customer told Fairbanks that he was through doing business in the United States after the delivery of a piece of crucial equipment was delayed because of visa problems.

"They basically told us they didn't want to do business with us anymore," Fairbanks said.

The problems extend far beyond Dresser-Rand.

Boeing has lost millions of dollars because foreign customers -- particularly those from the Middle East or Muslim countries elsewhere -- couldn't get visas for their pilots to pick up new jets or undergo training. The visa process has improved in recent months, Boeing spokeswoman Amanda Landers said, but the company still has problems getting foreign customers into the United States. The company has shifted some work or meetings overseas.

Terrorism fears, tighter security and worries about border hassles also have contributed to the woes of the country's half-billion-dollar travel and tourism industry. The number of foreign visitors plummeted from 50.9 million in 2000 to 40.4 million in 2003, representing a $22.5-billion loss.

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