America’s unfair post-911 policy on visas to the US

A complaint I heard time and again in China was the difficulty Chinese people were encountering when they attempted to get a visa to travel to America. It was always the same — they were refused, but they had to pay for the privilege of simply being considered.

A friend of mine at the US embassy said the reason for all the rejections was a simple one: A huge number of applicants who are awarded a visa — especially those on student visas — like it so much in the US that they never go back to China. (That’s hearsay that I can’t document, but I’ve heard it more than once.)

After 911, a tough situation got a lot worse for everybody seeking a non-immigrant visa into the US. In my own profession, it was an enormous headache getting visas for Chinese journalists who we wanted to send to press events in America. I know of cases where senior executives needed to fly over from the US just to argue with the embassy.

In yesterday’s NYT there’s an excellent op-ed on how unfair the visa policy is. It also claims that drastically limiting the number of visas, especially for students, hurts American society by reducing the exchange of information and ideas with developing countries. (Sorry for the long clip below, but this is a topic close to my heart. I eventually want to get a visa for a Chinese friend to come study in the US.)

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.


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.

I agree, outspokenly. I wish I could put into words just how frustrated (and furious) some of my friends were at the obstinacy of the visa providers, a real sense of helplessness. Yes, national security is an absolute top priority. But in this area, we go too far, and the loss far outweighs the gain.

Link via Josh Marshall.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

I think the easiest way to change this policy is if China and other countries implement reciprocal policies that apply only to US citizens.
So American students/businessmen/tourists will have to pay a non-refundable $1000 (based on relative per capita GDP), get fingerprinted and photographed, and interviewed before being issued a visa for China. The percentage rejected should reflect the percentage the US rejects. And American citizens traveling abroad will all have to go into a separate line to be fingerprinted and photographed every time they cross a border, while everyone else gets treated normally.

Unfortunately, only Brazil seems to be taking these steps now, and half-heartedly at that.

The national security argument doesn’t wash. Terrorists don’t care if you know who they are or not after they’ve committed suicide for their cause.

April 2, 2004 @ 8:41 pm | Comment

“A huge number of applicants who are awarded a visa — especially those on student visas — like it so much in the US that they never go back to China. (That’s hearsay that I can’t document, but I’ve heard it more than once.)”

I have a statistic that was published in China Daily a month or six weeks ago. Here, quoted from memory: of 600,000 students have gone overseas to study since 1978, only 160,000 have come back. It’s incomplete as it isn’t broken down by country or by trend over time, but it gives you some idea.

I’ll look for the link to the article when I have time.

April 2, 2004 @ 9:27 pm | Comment

Here is the link to the statistic I extrapolated

and the direct quote:

The latest official statistics showed that by the end of last October, the cumulative figure of Chinese students studying abroad totaled 580,000, and nearly 160,000 of them choose to find a job in their mother country.

The story was cautioning returning Chinese students not to have very high expectations for employment preference.

April 2, 2004 @ 9:43 pm | Comment

China has stopped issuing instant visas to Americans at Shenzhen due to this.

Good for them.

April 3, 2004 @ 1:09 am | Comment

It’s not just the U.S.; many European countries are slamming their borders shut too.

For example, the Netherlands has made it nearly impossible to obtain a non-immigrant visa, even for partners of Dutch or EU citizens living there. And if you think $100 is expensive, try €430! Which is what I paid for my residence permit application, and which is nonrefundable if it’s denied.

Interestingly, a couple of countries — NL and Germany among them — have realized, a bit late, that they desperately need skilled foreign workers, so they’re now talking about creating a “green-card” program for such people.

April 3, 2004 @ 2:08 am | Comment

oI think Boo has it pretty much wrong. China needs Western (US) business people and US tourists. It would be foolish to raise this fight to any higher level. China would lose economically and if the fight gets hotter Americans could stop buying Chinese made goods which would really impact the Chinese people. I think the Chinese government is wise enough to know that despite what a few of its nationalistic citizens say or demand.

I have been doing legal consulting for visa to the US in Guangzhou for 6 years. Anyway the Chinese can get to the US is fine with them legal or not. The story Ellen reports is what I have read in different sources. Ther is the story from about 4 years ago where 30 or so high school student were given student visa for studying in California for one year. All of them, at the airport when they were to return to China ran away and did not go bck to China.

There is more than enough of these type incidents to justify fingerprinting and photographing. But that is not the only problem the US has to deal with. The Chinese goverment sends many spies, governmental and industrial, to the US under various guises. So the Chinese government’s complaint can never be looked at just as a fairness issue. This new exercise will inhibit China’s efforts in this regard.
I just heard that the US will apply the fingerprint qnd photograph policy to visa applicants from some or all countries with the visa waiver program. Now all is fair.

April 5, 2004 @ 10:47 am | Comment

More on the student and other visas to the US. I have introduced myself to your site and I want to continue with my thoughts on the visas situation.

The US does make a lot of revenue from the visa process, granted. However, it is incorrect to say applicants for visa pay for the visa before the interview; they are paying up front the application fee to obtain an interview. Only if they are granted a visa they would have to pay a fee for the visa.

There is no discrimination between different countries on this.

The visa application fee is necessary to stop individuals from constantly reapplying after refusals. If it were for free there would be no reasonable way to stop the whole of China’s student population from applying and reapplying as well as students from other countries. In my opinion, the Chinese students would take advantage of such a situation to the extend of overwhelming the non-immigration visa processing or burdening the non-immigration visa processing administration with so much costs as to be prohibitive. Your tax dollars and mine.

These students as well as other aliens wanting non-immigration visas are asking for a privilege to go to America. The many of the complaining ones probably don’t have the ability to qualify. “No fee unless successful,” just opens the door for more fraud and allows people unlimited chances to get to the US, many of whom would stay, legally or illegally.

April 5, 2004 @ 9:27 pm | Comment

I want to make a correction. The post was right; there is only one payment for a student visa. Up front.
I was crosswing my wires with the situation for immigration visas.

April 5, 2004 @ 10:20 pm | Comment

Pete, I disagree with most of what you say. I know too many people who have been affected and have had to deal with it as part of my work. When you say those complaining probably don’t have the ability to qualify — that is simply untrue. If you complain right you can get the visa grantors to change their minds sometimes. But you have to complain.

April 7, 2004 @ 3:01 pm | Comment

American consular officers routinely deny visas even to people who qualify under the written guidelines of the U. S. State Department. Often the consular officers do not even look at the supporting documentation the applicants bring. During my recent trip to Lithuania I heard many stories of applicants, some of them elderly people who wanted to visit family members in the United States, yelled at and verbally abused by the consular staff who saw them. The result of such inexcusable treatment is a rising tide of disillusionment among people who once looked at America as a beacon of freedom and justice. President Bush has repeatedly promised to correct such abuses. But so far his promises have not produced any results. As an American, I am saddened to see the so many of our diplomats tarnish my countries image overseas.

March 16, 2005 @ 4:46 pm | Comment

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