Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I don't like traveling to the US with my wife

The thought of traveling to the US with my wife is scary. It's not that the door-to-door travel time takes about 24 hours, or even that we have to sit in coach the entire way. The thing that scares me the most is US immigration / passport control.

My wife is from South Korea, and she loves spending time with my family in Vermont. However, the disrespect she receives when she enters the US has brought her to tears on more than one occasion.

South Korea, for those that don't know, does not qualify for the visa waiver program like Japan and a number of European countries. This means that a long wait and 'guilty until proven innocent' treatment are guaranteed at many US ports of entry. Despite having a ten year tourist visa stamped into her passport, she is questioned like a criminal every time she attempts to come back.

We have visited the states at least twice, and occasionally three times, a year since 2001. She always comes and goes when she says she's going to, and it's obvious (due to the nature of the questions) that every bit of information they ask for is written right on the screen in front of them. This isn't a situation where someone is traveling with a fake passport. My wife has entered and exited the US with the same passport for the past six years. Apparently there's no way to improve your reputation with the immigration officials. Even after several years of playing by the rules, visitors from other countries are greeted by some of the harshest people in uniform that we as a nation have to offer (click here for a peek at 2004 hourly rates for airport security personnel).

How do I know that all of this goes on? Because I get to watch it unfold every time we land.

I zip through the American citizens line at the airport in less than four or five minutes each time I go home. But then I have to sit and wait on the baggage pickup side of the immigration turnstiles for at least 40 minutes as my wife wilts in line. The immigration officers, who are often not the friendliest people when on the clock, are generally slow to react to large amounts of people lined up outside the 'foreign visitors' half of the hall. They emerge from the office, one at a time, and walk at a snail's pace toward their respective booths, take a couple of minutes to get everything set up just to their liking, and then rudely motion to the first person in their line to come forward for questioning. Oh, and if they forgot something in the office? They get up out of their chair, exit the booth, and walk even more slowly back to that central box with tinted windows. I'm confident that I have never seen people walk so slowly in my life! And meanwhile, these poor passengers' luggage is just waiting on the other side of the turnstiles for someone to walk off with it.

When it's finally my wife's turn for some questioning, fingerprinting, and a mugshot, she nervously answers the questions as politely as she can. I have been called in three times over the years to help expedite things. Sometimes I'm asked the same questions that she was just asked to verify the veracity of her statements. Maybe my wife fits the profile of a terrorist...? Or perhaps it's just that they find her attractive and the immigration officers resort to junior high school type nastiness to show their affection and win some more time talking at her.

I'm not doing a very good job of describing how messed up the whole system is, and how detrimental it is to America's image, but it basically all adds up to bullying and/or harassment. My wife and I have been waiting patiently for South Korea, America's biggest military ally and home to one of the most highly-educated populations in the world, to be granted visa waiver status, but there are a lot of politicians who are dragging their feet.

Is South Korea's delayed ascension to 'preferred nation' status the thing that truly makes my wife angry? No, it's not. The thing that enrages her is how a country that desires so badly to be loved and admired by the outside world would allow this kind of thing to happen (especially to a person who is married to one of its citizens). To be perfectly honest, I do not know that visitors from visa waiver countries are treated any better. A couple of my Japanese and British friends have reported similar treatment. What I do know is that every time we travel to the states my wife loses a bit of her love for America. And so do I.

Help is on the way?

The Discover America Partnership (DAP) is preparing to help a number of private-sector groups pressure the Bush administration to ease up on its visa regulations. As it turns out, there are a lot of people out there who have experienced the same things that my wife has. Despite the fact that global travel is booming, the number of foreign visitors to the US is still down since September, 2001, and this poses serious ramifications for businesses, universities, and the tourism industry. The DAP estimates that the US has shut itself out of 93 billion dollars due to post 9/11 visa restrictions. That means that the government, by way of its own sluggishness in addressing these issues, has forfeited a cool 15 billion in tax revenues.

Universities in other countries have begun advertising that they don't have a US style visa system, and that marketing campaign has been seen as successful in luring students away from the states. Studying English (or some other subject) in England or Australia would be a fantastic experience to be sure. However, when people are choosing not to study in America because the hassle of getting in is too great, and other economies are benefiting from said hassles, there is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed.

I have a feeling that people living and working in the US are largely unaware that they are not highly regarded in other countries. The DAP asserts that one way to reverse that reality is to make it easier for travelers to visit the United States. For starters, they could eliminate mugshots and fingerprinting for return visitors. My wife and I would certainly appreciate that.

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