How To Repel Tourism, Ctd

The reader who hoped to hear from an immigration worker gets his wish:

I spent 20 years in the Foreign Service, much of it adjudicating visa applications. In all, I probably issued and refused over 50,000 nonimmigrant visas. The first thing to understand about immigration is that there’s nothing fair about it. Is it fair that some of us were lucky enough to be born in this fat, happy, free, rich country while other souls came to life in benighted Third World hellholes? No. Are we obliged then to let in anyone who wants to come here? You tell me. Is it fair that a nasty, ill-educated person whose sibling happens to be a US citizen has a claim on an immigrant visa while a nice person with a decent education but no rare skill and no family here doesn’t? That’s the way the law is written.

Congress demands by law that every applicant for a tourist visa (or any nonimmigrant visa) be considered “an intending immigrant” until they prove otherwise. With good reason – a lot of them are intending immigrants. Why is it Americans have such an easier time traveling to other countries than citizens of those countries have traveling here? Because Americans go home, that’s why.

Even when US citizens work off the books for a year or two overseas, they almost always wind up coming home. The same can’t be said of most foreigners who come here, even Europeans. When I was in Lithuania in the mid-’90s, for example, about 5 to 10 percent of the folks to whom I issued visas didn’t come back. (Let’s not even talk about my refusals.) And Lithuania in the ’90s was a whole lot better place to be living than most of the world is today.

We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to bring in tourist dollars but keep the intending immigrants out. Our elected representatives write laws demanding we make foreign citizens prove their intent, but send consular officers letters demanding to know why we refuse visas to applicants, who – their constituents assure them – only wish to visit Disney World or attend a wedding. You never hear from Congressmen demanding to know why you issued a visa to someone – until they go on a rant about illegal aliens or demand the head of whoever issued visas to the 9/11 hijackers.

Adjudicating visa applications is both science and art. You’re trying to determine not just if someone has a plausible reason for going to the US – and sufficiently strong ties overseas to bring him back home – but what his intent is. In the meantime, in the three minutes the average visa interview lasts – yes, three minutes – you’ve got to check if the applicant’s passport, visas, and immigration stamps are valid or fake, whether supporting documents about employment or assets are real or made up, whether the application is filled out completely, what kind of family members the applicant has in the US (and perhaps whether they got there legally or not) – and also, oh yeah, try to figure out if the applicant is a terrorist, criminal, or spy.

It can be an unpleasant experience for sure, for both sides. It’s State Department policy to conduct interviews in a professional and respectful way, and there can be serious professional consequences for Foreign Service officers who fail to do so. But FSOs are human, and the visa section can be a stressful place to work. Alas, lots of visa applicants lie, and many don’t take a refusal well. Even easygoing types like me lose their cool every so often. That’s the nature of the beast.

The system is imperfect but there’s only so much you can do to make it less unpleasant. The alternative is to get rid of tourist visas altogether. In which case, as some of us used to say, be prepared for a billion people to move here. The next day.