31 March 2004
Land of the Free?
By Steven C. Clemons
WASHINGTON Even if their applications are rejected, citizens of developing nations must pay $100 for a non-immigrant visa to the United States. Not only is this policy unfair and counterproductive, but it is also unpatriotic.
The unfairness is obvious: people should not be charged for something in this case, a visa to the United States that they do not receive. And $100 is a huge sum in nations like India, with an annual per capita income estimated at $2,600 in 2002, or even Poland, where it is $9,700.
The State Department says these higher fees increased from $65 in November 2002 help pay for the cost of running America's consular service around the world. It's true that heightened security measures adopted in the wake of 9/11 cost more money. But rejected visa applicants should not have to pay for them. It's also true that the higher fees have produced more revenue. But they have discouraged visitors.
From October 2000 to September 2001, 6.3 million people applied to travel to the United States for business, pleasure or medical treatment from developing nations. (These include any nations that do not have a reciprocal visa waiver agreement with the United States.) That number dropped to 3.7 million for the 2003 fiscal year. Applications for student visas fell by almost 100,000 over the same two years.
Despite the decline in applications, visa rejection rates have risen. The rate for "cultural exchange" visas, for example used by many medical students was 5.1 percent for the 2001 fiscal year; two years later it was 7.8 percent.
The combination of these factors an increase in the visa fee and the greater likelihood of rejection has only strengthened the perception that America has become less hospitable to foreigners in the aftermath of 9/11. So it is not surprising that fewer foreigners aspire to train at American universities and become part of the United States network of talent and innovation.
Here is where it becomes clear the policy is counterproductive: the gap in perspective and perception of the world between Americans and citizens of other nations is only becoming wider. To narrow it, America should allow more people to come here, not fewer. Winning the war of ideas against those who fear or hate American society cannot be won by keeping the world out.
America should encourage more educational, scientific and cultural exchange with the developing world and support business and leisure travel here. Of course it is costly to monitor the borders and to screen each person who would like to come to this country. But by reducing its visa fee and more efficiently screening the few bad guys from the many good guys, applications may increase and so will revenue. At the very least, the federal government should institute a policy mandated by Congress if necessary of returning the $100 fee to all applicants refused entry into the United States.
America should not penalize ambition. This country has thrived in large part because smart, curious and determined people from all parts of the globe want to study or work here. When they become citizens, as they often do, their productivity and innovation help the United States maintain its position as one of the most dynamic economies in history.
Steven C. Clemons is executive vice president of the New America Foundation.