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The Closing of the American Border

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
September 24, 2008
The Globalist


Most visitors to the United States have an experience with the U.S. bureaucracy-whether in the visa process or in crossing the border. Increasingly this experience includes lengthy delays, interrogations and invasions of privacy. Edward Alden describes where this process has gone wrong-and how it will affect the U.S. economy.

Americans ask themselves a lot these days why the world doesn't like us much anymore. The Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay and the track record of the Bush Administration are all part of the answer.

A visitor's view

But there may be a different reason. For most people around the world, the only direct contact they ever have with the United States is when they, or their friends or family members, try to travel here.

And since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that experience has become a vastly more difficult and unpleasant one. Consider the following through the eyes of a foreign visitor, student or business executive.

If you live outside of Canada, Western Europe, Japan and a handful of other countries, you now need a personal interview with a U.S. embassy official to get your visa to come to the United States, whether it's for four years of study or a week's vacation to Disneyland.

Heightened security?

Before 9/11, the U.S. State Department had broad discretion to grant visas to travelers without interviews, on the reasonable assumption that most people traveling to the United States posed no risk, and that it was better to spend more time interviewing those who raised some concerns.

Now, if you live in Brazil, it will take you three to four months just to schedule the interview and, since there are only three U.S. consulates in the country, you may have to take a plane to appear for your two minutes of questioning.

Special treatment

In 2006 in India, the maximum wait times for interviews were five months or more, delays that were brought down only through a massive redeployment of consular officers by the U.S. State Department that is probably not sustainable.

In China, it takes more than a month just to get through that first stage. In Dubai, it takes two months. And the application fee was recently doubled to $131, which you will forfeit if you are refused a visa.

If you are a young male from a predominantly Muslim country-whether you yourself are a Muslim or not-in addition to being interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed when you get your visa, you will be required to fill out a detailed questionnaire before coming to the United States, including information on relatives, bank accounts and contacts in the United States.

Invasions of privacy

Every time you travel back to the United States-even if you are living here already with a green card or a work visa and are returning from a trip abroad-you will be pulled aside to "secondary" screening, where you could face a lengthy delay.

The officer will probably rifle through your wallet or purse, writing down calling card numbers or any other scraps of information. You will also be required to "check out" from specific airports when leaving the country by informing U.S. border agents of your departure. Failure to do so could result in you being barred from returning to the United States for five years.

A small misunderstanding

Regardless of where you are from, if you overstay your welcome by even a few days and get caught, the consequences will be grave.

Valeria Vinnikova, a 21-year-old German who did not require a visa to come to the United States, went to Hanover, New Hampshire in July 2007 to spend time with her fiancé, Hansi Wiens, the squash coach at Dartmouth College.

She had been given a 90-day visitor's permit, which she thought expired on October 13. The two of them went to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station on the Canadian border October 12 to seek a 90-day renewal to allow her to stay with him in Hanover. But she had misread the scrawled handwriting on the permit, which actually expired on October 3.

Unfair castigation

She was immediately slapped in handcuffs and taken to a jail in Portland, Maine, where she spent more than a month. Vinnikova was ordered deported, which meant that she would have been barred from returning to the United States for ten years, forcing her fiancé to choose between his marriage and his career.

Only after a massive local outcry did the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agree to release her and allow her to return to Germany "voluntarily," which means she will likely be permitted to return to the United States in the future.

Suspicious neighbors?

Even if you are crossing the land borders from neighboring Canada or Mexico to work or visit or shop, which millions do every year, you are facing longer delays to enter the United States.

Canadian and Mexican officials both say that the problems were severe for several years after 9/11, and then began to improve by 2005 and 2006, before worsening again over the past two years.

Delays have grown even though the volume of traffic fell sharply at both the Canada and Mexico border crossings after 9/11 and has not recovered.

Expect more delays

On both borders, new requirements that travelers must show a passport or other secure identification when crossing are soon to be enforced rigorously and will cause further delays.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is trying to figure out how to build a system that will force all those travelers to "check out" as well when they leave the country.


This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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