Visa delays and strict border-crossing measures are discouraging foreign visitors from coming to the United States. Edward Alden warns that the United States’ tough new regulations may come with the high price of keeping out the very people that the United States needs to maintain its position in the world.
Given the current array of obstacles, pitfalls and even serious dangers for any foreign visitor to the United States, is it not surprising that a travel industry survey in 2006 found that the United States was considered by foreign travelers to be the most unwelcoming destination in the world, by more than a two to one margin over the next worst destination, the Middle East.
No more arrivals
Two-thirds of travelers said they were scared that the smallest mistake could cause them to be detained for hours or even turned back. Forty percent said their perceptions of the United States had been hurt by stories they had heard about people ill-treated at the U.S. borders.
And they have stopped coming here. Between 2001 and 2003, the number of U.S. visas issued to foreigners fell by a third, from over 7.5 million per year to fewer than five million.
By last year that number had recovered to about 6.5 million, but even with a falling dollar that has made the United States a bargain destination. Total overseas visits were still down some two million people from pre-9/11 levels, despite a boom in international travel that should have brought millions more to the country.
Studying abroad elsewhere
After nearly 40 years of rapid growth, foreign student enrollment in U.S. universities fell after 9/11 and did not register its first increase again until 2006, at a time when foreign enrollment at universities in Europe, Australia and Canada is increasing at double-digit rates.
Not surprisingly, the tourist and student numbers are down particularly sharply from the Middle East and Arab countries.
Visa delays have also made it harder to attract foreign investors to the United States. State government officials charged with enticing foreign investors to their states say that the difficulty of obtaining visas for foreign businessmen is one of their biggest obstacles.
Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, whose state has been among the most successful in attracting foreign investment in recent years, said, “When you go to Europe, the whole first half of every meeting is about how they’ve been traveling to the United States for 20 years and now they’re treated like criminals by the immigration system.”
In a recent survey of state investment promotion officials, nearly three-quarters said they had run into problems trying to get visas for potential foreign investors in their states.
The response might be, so what? The United States has not suffered another terrorist attack on its soil since 9/11, so perhaps the tough new border measures are a price worth paying.
But the experience of the past seven years has clearly demonstrated that there are better, more targeted, less heavy-handed ways to keep terrorists and criminals out of the country without discouraging all the talented and ambitious foreigners that this country wants and needs. And we do need them.
Embracing foreigners Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, argues that the United States’ biggest economic competitive advantage has been “its status over the last century as the world’s most open country. . . What made America the world’s greatest power was not just our technology, market size or natural resources,” he writes.
“The fundamental cause lies in one thing: our amazing ability to attract the world’s greatest scientists, engineers and cultural entrepreneurs.”
Amy Chua, in her recent book Day of Empire, argues that the most successful world powers in history have shared a common attribute—they brought in, developed and encouraged the most talented people in the world.
Seeking new talent
“At any given historical moment, the most valuable human capital the world has to offer—whether in the form of intelligence, physical strength, skill, knowledge, creativity, networks, commercial innovation or technological invention—is never to be found in any one locale or within any one ethnic or religious group. To pull away from its rivals on a global scale, a society must pull into itself and motivate the world’s best and brightest, regardless of ethnicity, religion or background.”
To give only a few examples of how important such foreign talent is to the United States, more than one-quarter of U.S. scientists and engineers are foreign-born, and nearly one-quarter of all patent applications in the United States are filed by immigrants.
Visitors not welcome?
Some 40% of new start-up companies in Silicon Valley are headed by immigrants. Yet seven years after the attacks—enough time for the government to find that elusive balance between security and openness—one of the country’s leading corporate immigration lawyers recently told Congress, “At no time in our nation’s history has access to talent been as limited as it is today.”
With a new administration soon to take office, we are at a point at which tougher choices need to be made.
The added security has come with a very high price tag in keeping out people that the United States badly needs and wants if it is to maintain its pre-eminent position in the world.
The efficiency of security
Serious and partially successful efforts have been made to improve the efficiency of the new security schemes to try to reduce those costs.
Yet, few U.S. politicians—and few in the circles of the senior bureaucrats who run the new homeland security apparatus—are asking whether the incremental added security that comes from layering on more and more new border security measures is worth the costs the country is paying.
A security empire
Instead of institutionalizing a balanced approach, we have created a massive Homeland Security department that is dedicated solely to making us safer.
As Norman Neureiter, the former science and technology advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell, put it, “We’ve built a huge 186,000-person bureaucracy. And what is its job? Homeland security. It’s not projection of freedom. It’s not the statue of liberty. It’s not all those things which are written—‘give us your huddled masses, give us your poor, your starving.’ No.
“It’s to build walls around America to keep us safe from anything—disease, nuclear, radioactive or humans—that might cross our borders. And every day they need to go to work and do something.”
In working on my book, there was one comment that really stuck with me.
It was made by Bill Reinsch, who has worked many years for both Republicans and Democrats, in the U.S. Congress and in the executive branch, on issues that lie at the intersection of the global economy and national security.
He now works for large U.S. companies that have seen their talent pool shrink with the imposition of new border controls, but his concerns are much broader than just the impact on corporate America.
“One of our secret weapons has always been bringing people here to see what America is like,” he said.
“The ones that stay enrich our society, and the ones that go back enrich their societies because they take our values with them. We’re throwing all that away. The long-term consequences of this are horrible.”
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.