WASHINGTON — State Department officials have no plans to change procedures for visas for travelers from West Africa in response to Ebola.
Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that altering the visa policy would disrupt necessary trips for West African medical personnel and others who need to travel to the U.S.
Health officials “have not recommended that we cut off travel from these countries because it remains essential that the world community engage in order to help the affected countries address and contain this ongoing health crisis,” she said.
Under current U.S. law, visitors from those countries generally obtain a visa. They can be barred from entry if they have a “communicable disease of public health significance,” as determined by the secretary of Health and Human Services.
Ebola is in that category, but Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan didn’t show any symptoms of the virus when he left the country bound for Europe and eventually Dallas. Seven diseases are on the list, including leprosy. The president can expand the list by executive order.
The CDC director also has the authority to add diseases deemed a “public health emergency of international concern,” according to a Congressional Research Service report published in August.
More than 2,700 Liberians entered the U.S. on visitor visas in 2013. Citizens from Guinea and Sierra Leone, the other countries dealing with Ebola crises, each claimed about 1,400 visitor visas last year.
Duncan traveled from Liberia to the U.S. on Sept. 19. His visa permitted him to stay in the country for 180 days.
Duncan responded that he had not been in contact with anyone who had Ebola on a questionnaire. At the time, he had not experienced any symptoms of the virus.
Jim Hollifield, a professor of political science at SMU who studies immigration policy, said that any change to the current visa system would be “completely impractical.”
“There is simply no way that you’re going to be able to hermetically seal an entire region, an entire population and hope for the best,” Hollifield said.
Rather than have their visas voided or delayed, Hollifield said that travelers from West Africa will probably be subject to more stringent screening standards.
Follow Michael Marks on Twitter at @michaelpmarks and Kimberly Railey at @kimberlyrailey.