Posted by: realtormarkpalace | June 1, 2011

Travel industry wants U.S. to ease visa rules

Travel industry wants U.S. to ease visa rules
WASHINGTON – May 31, 2011 – The Statue of Liberty might “lift my lamp beside the golden door,” but American tourism officials say too many foreign visitors are finding that door locked when they try to come to the United States.

The U.S. Travel Association, the lobbying arm of the tourism trade, has launched a drive to persuade the American public and its elected leaders that it’s time to ease back on restrictions on foreign tourists. But it may be a quixotic campaign in the run-up to an election year when illegal immigration and terrorism are front-burner issues.

The wealthy family from Argentina that wants to come to Los Angeles on a shopping spree because of the weak dollar has little in common with the illegal immigrant crossing the border from Mexico or the jihadist attempting to sneak in from Canada. But safeguards to stop illegal entry sometimes end up snaring just the tourist.

Those bent on illegal activity will try to find ways around the roadblocks. The legal visitor likely will go somewhere more welcoming. That’s a policy the country can ill afford during a major recession, according to the U.S Travel Association.

“As a nation, we’re putting up a ‘keep out’ sign,” said Roger Dow, president of the association, in a press statement this month.

The group said barriers to easy travel to the U.S. have kept out an estimated 78 million foreign tourists (and their wallets) from 2000 to 2010. Lifting many of the restrictions could pump $859 billion into the U.S. economy and add 1.3 million jobs, by the association’s estimates.

Dow’s group points out that most of the barriers are self-imposed and archaic. While Europe has mostly unified its immigration and customs, and countries around the world have dropped or streamlined visa requirements, the U.S. still requires millions of travelers to go through a sometimes long and laborious process to visit here.

As of May, there are 36 countries that are on the Visa Waiver Program – countries whose citizens are not required to get a visa to travel to the U.S. for vacations of 90 days or less. Most of the countries are in western and central Europe, with a smattering of highly developed Asian nations such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Australia and New Zealand are also on the list. Citizens of most of the other 150 or so countries around the globe have to get in line and fill out the paperwork.

But what the travel association sees as “unnecessary barriers on international visitors” are seen by advocates of tighter borders as a way to control who gets to visit the country and, equally important, to make sure they go home when their trip is over.

A Government Accountability Office report in April said half of illegal immigrants in the U.S. entered with various legal visas and then simply stayed when they expired. The report said there is a backlog of 1.6 million known cases of expired visas, but that Immigration and Customs Enforcement spends only 3 percent of its time trying to track down the scofflaws.

The State Department has a portion of its official website that deals with fraud of nonimmigrant visas, the catch-all visa status for everything from tourists to businesspeople to those here for temporary work or study. Tourists normally get a B-2 visa.

“Some applicants intend to abuse their nonimmigrant visas by remaining in the United States illegally,” the website says. A typical type of fraud is “misrepresentation of reasons for traveling.”

Any reformers will have to overcome anecdotal evidence that sends shudders up the spine of many Americans. Some of the hijackers who flew jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, had entered the country using tourist visas. In one of the more troublesome examples, plotter Ziad Jarrah entered the U.S. in June 2000 on a tourist visa. He went to flight school. He never sought to extend his visa or change his status. Though he was “out of status,” he was able to use the visa to leave the U.S. and return three times. Jarrah was a leader of the hijackers of United Flight 93, which was headed toward Washington when passengers tried to take back control of the plane and the flight crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

But with a sputtering economy and overseas travelers attracted by a historically weak dollar, the travel association thinks the time is right for reform. It will push its “Ready for Takeoff” plan, touting travel as the nation’s top export sector and one that is easy to expand. The group also knows how to hit the hot button. Job growth and tax cuts are mantras Americans can get behind. Foreign visitors are a way to fill tax coffers without raising taxes on Americans. It will create jobs for Americans to check them into hotels, rent them cars and serve them meals.

As part of the push, the association is re-energizing the Discover America Partnership, an umbrella coalition with associations representing hotels, restaurants, retailers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I do have one suggestion: Expand the type of immigrations and customs controls already in place for people flying from Canada to the United States. Meet problems as far out as possible, before they are at our doorstep.

When my recent flight from Vancouver landed at John Wayne Airport, I stepped out of the gate and right into the terminal as if I had never left the United States. The reason: I had cleared U.S. customs and immigration in Vancouver before boarding the flight home.

It’s a program that has been in place for several years and an idea that goes back even further. In Ireland in the late 1990s, I passed through the U.S. formalities in Dublin before getting on the plane home – part of what the agent told me was an experimental program to try to catch problem travelers before they ever get to the U.S.

I wish the program were in place in more places around the world. I would extend the same courtesy to the British, French and others here if they wished it. Better to find out about a travel problem before leaving home than to arrive at an airport and end up in a holding room.

It would be a step in the right direction for both keeping our borders secure and reforming an unfriendly system that U.S. tourism officials say is costing the country billions of dollars and millions of jobs.

© 2011 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.), Gary A. Warner. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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