An Open Letter to Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State (please pass on)

This terrorist entered the country legally on an official US visa.

Dear Madame Secretary

The State Department that you head is the responsible body for issuing visitor visas to people who wish to travel to our great country as tourists, and so I am writing to you to share the frustration of myself and most other Americans at your persistent and ridiculous unfounded refusals to allow bona fide tourists to visit our country and spend their money here.

This is not a problem that your administration created – it has spanned many years and administrations.  But it is a problem that you could personally solve, in as little time as it takes you to pen a guidance note.

In refusing to allow more tourists to our country the State Department is materially harming our nation’s economy, and if they were to adopt a more rational and sensible approach, you would do more to create new jobs at zero cost  – true new jobs that would extend on beyond when any initial federal job creation subsidy expires – than our President is promising us at a massive cost of $447 billion.

Our market share of international tourism has declined from 18% to 12% in less than a decade.  It is estimated that a more realistic visa issuing policy and simply returning back to our traditional ‘deserved’ market share would create 1.3 million new jobs for Americans, and rather than costing anything, would add $859 billion to our economy.

Further liberalization of our visa issuing policies could boost these numbers massively further.

And rather than a scramble over many months to create ‘shovel ready’ projects, you could achieve this in minutes rather than months, simply by instructing your consular officials to adopt – today – a more positive interpretation of visa applicants’ eligibility for visas.  There would be no cost to doing this; only benefits.

By way of vivid example of the current problems with present visa issuing policies, a reader of my newsletter and someone I’ve corresponded with on occasion who lives in China wrote to tell me of her frustration at being refused a US visa.  So you can understand her eligibility for a US visitor visa, let me tell you about her.

She is in her mid forties.  She is divorced and has an adult daughter, currently studying at university in Oxford, UK.

She has her own successful business, which has been established for some reasonable number of years (ie more than five), and which has all necessary licenses.  She earns about 500,000 yuan a year (just over US$80,000).  She owns her own apartment (and I think possibly a second apartment too) and her own imported car and has substantial deposits in her bank account (in excess of $50,000).  She has no criminal background.

Other ties to China include her support and provision of companionship to her elderly father, and the simple fact that she would have no chance of earning anything like the amount she does if she were to overstay and remain in the US, due to poor English skills and non-transferable employment skills.  She has no relatives living in the US.  She needs to continue earning at a high level because she is paying for her daughter’s college tuition in Oxford.  (The days when simply moving to the US automatically guaranteed a person from China a much better income are long since vanished.)

She has traveled to various other countries regularly in the past, including the UK, and has always complied with the terms of her visas.  She was recently granted a tourist visa to travel to Canada (without needing to be interviewed by the Canadian authorities) and decided to add a side trip briefly down to the US in the middle of her Canadian travels.

So she paid the fees, filled out the forms, and flew thousands of miles to be interviewed in your Beijing visa issuing section.

What do you think the outcome of her visa application was?  Do you think she was thanked sincerely for her interest in visiting the US and her willingness to spend thousands of dollars on touring, on flights, on hotels, on meals, and on sundry other expenses in the US?  Surely she fits into as gilt edged a category of intending visitors as exist – successful affluent tourists who have previously demonstrated compliance with visa requirements in other western countries, with money, income, and good reason to return to China?

Her visa application was refused.  She says her application paperwork was scarcely glanced at, her ‘interview’ (which she flew thousands of miles for, requiring overnight stays in Beijing and substantial cost for airfare, taxis, and accommodation) comprised no more than the briefest of cursory exchanges which could have been done by phone if at all, and her refusal was almost immediate and without any clear explanation or recourse for appeal.

Now, please don’t go quoting figures at me about the number of people who are granted visas from China – and all other countries.  And don’t go quoting figures at me about how these numbers are steadily increasing.

What I’d like you to consider, instead, is how much greater the number of vistors to the US could be if a more sensible approach was taken to allowing people to visit.  This number is an imponderable, and I completely do not believe the official statistics about the number of visa rejections that occur in each country, because unofficial feedback – such as from this woman – consistently seems to indicate vastly higher rejection rates (see for example my recent blog article about how 12 out of a group of 21 MBA graduates/successful business people were recently refused visas to visit the US).

Furthermore, even if the official statistics about visa rejection rates were true, they ignore a much larger obscured reality – the number of people who don’t even try to apply for a US visa, due to what is perceived as a very expensive and very lengthy process with a massively high chance of capricious refusal at the end of the procedure.

I come back to this particular lady’s example.  On what conceivable grounds could such an application be rejected?

The State Department is setting the barrier to visa issuance way too high.  In so doing, they are harming our country, its economy, and its people.  They are not harming refused visitors – these people have 200+ other countries to go visit instead, starting off with the vastly easier process to visit Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, or other English speaking countries, and of course the even more liberal process to visit most other countries.

These countries spend millions of dollars marketing themselves to potential foreign visitors, and do all they can to make their visa receiving experience positive.  We spend millions of dollars to maintain a bureaucracy focused on refusing rather than granting visas.  These other countries have experienced no problems with a flood of overstaying visitors, and with all respect to our own country, are at least as desirable places for people to choose to relocate to and overstay in as the US.

Our country’s willingness to ‘turn a blind eye’ to illegal aliens from Mexico and elsewhere seems to indicate that even if foreign visitors might overstay, there is no perceived harm to the United States in allowing such actions to occur.

Our international reputation degrades each time another person is refused a visa.  People such as this woman – upper middle class people, the opinion leaders of their communities – are not just embarrassed and disappointed by their visa refusal, but are angered by an opaque process that seems to be entirely inappropriate.  Direct citizen to citizen level contact between ourselves and foreign visitors is universally considered to be one of the most effective forms of national diplomacy there is, whether it be as part of the federally funded Fulbright Scholarship program run by your own State Department, or any of the many other programs that exist in many forms.

It is one of the best ways of aligning the world with, understanding, and supporting our interests and values.  We should be welcoming these people and making their experience positive from their first official contact with our consulates in their home countries, and all the way through to their final departure from our shores.  Instead, we’re upsetting and annoying them.

Furthermore, international visitors grow our economy.  Domestic taxation and government spending merely seeks to change our economy, but international visitors grow the economy because they bring new cash into our economy rather than merely redirecting and recycling the cash already in our system.  Each tourist dollar is worth a great deal more to the nation’s economic health than each domestic dollar, no matter whether it is in the form of a dollar more of taxation/spending, or a dollar less of taxation/spending.

This is not be a partisan ‘tax/spend more vs tax/spend less’ issue.  It stands to massively boost our economy, bringing new tax revenues to the government, greater prosperity to currently employed citizens and new jobs for currently unemployed job seekers.  Everyone wins.  No-one loses.

Don’t tell me that the State Dept is required by law to suspiciously treat every visa applicant as if they are secretly intending to overstay and that the visa officer is therefore required to seek sufficient proof from each would-be visitor of the certainty of their returning home again.  Quite apart from the difficulty anyone ever has of proving a negative, this sort of subjective determination can be construed positively or negatively.  The visa officer who – almost without looking – decided this woman was a ‘risk’ is being ridiculously too demanding.

The State Dept needs to evaluate its officers not in terms of their visa refusals, but their visa issuances.  I know they don’t like any sort of oversight of their visa issuing officers, for fear of undue influence being brought to bear on them, but these people need to be made accountable for their capriciously ridiculous refusals.

Please change your policies.  Please allow this nation’s economy to grow, please allow 1.3 million new jobs to be created at no cost, and our international image to limp back to something acceptable.  Please start issuing more visas more readily.

23 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State (please pass on)”

  1. I have been to Guatemala 22 times for multiple weeks at each visit to study and my Spanish instructor, Head Teacher at the school, has tried to come to the USA to visit me for the past five years and the same issue presents itself.
    She is 65 years old, married for 40 years, worked at the same school for 20 years, has a home that is paid for, has stability with family, and is still denied access to this country.
    I even guaranteed her return to Guatemala personally. Still, no go.
    This is outrageous.

  2. Dear David,
    Perhaps you didn’t connect the dots between your draft appeal to Hillary Clinton and your article titled “Guilt by Association…” slightly further down in this week’s edition.
    It’s not simply a matter of easing up on visa restrictions. During the last few years, anyone in the US who wears a uniform to work, whether formally connected with the security apparatus or not, has become increasingly infected with paranoia; Homeland Security is no longer about managing risk; it’s about a fanatic policy of zero tolerance.
    You, better than anyone, know how replete the blogosphere is with horror stories of travelers subjected to appalling treatment by petty officials, all in the name of so-called security.
    I’m a Canadian travel writer. I will not accept any assignment that involves having to visit a US destination, nor will I book any international air travel which requires a connection through a US airport. Frankly, American officialdom scares me. It’s out of control.
    And when I visit friends or talk to contacts in other countries, many say the same thing. It’s going to take much more than the easing of visa restrictions to tempt visitors back to the US. It is official mind-sets and attitudes that need to change and I don’t see this happening. If anything, things are getting worse in that department.

  3. Bravo! I tried an apartment swap with friends in Prague. Guess what? They couldn’t get visas! I mean, seriously?
    This has to stop. We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.

  4. It seems to me (a Canadian) that the US as a whole thinks the rest of the world wants to live and work there. Not so. Although some people from developing countries may improve their economic outlook by “overstaying” a visa, many who may want to visit from other countries would NEVER trade their jobs and homes in their own country. They just want to take a vacation to another place that’s different from where they live – the same as any other tourist in the world. Sad that paranoia is closing off a lovely piece of geography to almost all of the rest of the world. The more insular the US becomes the more the paranoia grows.

  5. As you suggest, David, part of the problem arises from the State department’s policy of insulating consular officials from external influences. These very junior officials have been given extraordinary powers. No wonder their decisions seem arbitrary.
    I like your idea of domestic sponsors posting a bond guaranteeing compliance with visa conditions. I can see bail bondsmen opening a new line of business financing these guarantees, “monetizing” the risks and removing them from the slender shoulders of our junior bureaucrats abroad.

  6. I was recently ‘interviewed’ for a US visa in China.
    My interview lasted maybe one – at the most two – minutes, and comprised of two questions – ‘What is the purpose of your visit’ and ‘Do you know anyone in the US’. Both these questions were already asked of me on the application form.
    After I explained I was traveling for tourism and I knew no-one in the US, I was then immediately told my visa application was refused, and I was given an already printed sheet of paper explaining my visa was refused because I’d failed to convince the visa officer of my returning to China.
    What answers should I have given to these two questions?
    Why did I have to wait weeks and fly from another city to Beijing just to be asked two questions, the answers to which were already on my application form?
    Please understand my frustration at this strange process and negative result.

  7. it seems that the USA visa is still one of the hardest to obtain even for a short visit to the country. The sorrows of the Chinese lady mentioned in the article remind me of the troubles friends had getting visas in Moscow in 1990s but I hoped it would be made easier. not so, i guess.

  8. David – I agree with everything you say. There’s even more, though, which you wouldn’t know, not having applied for a visa yourself.
    The US Embassy’s website lists all sorts of documentation that you should bring with you to the interview – copies of bank statements, letters from employer, and all sorts of other things.
    I had a big thick file of materials that I took with me to my visa interview in Beijing. The interviewing officer did never even look at them!!! I was asked a couple of very short and simple questions, then handed a paper telling me my application was turned down.
    I spent a lot of time preparing all these materials. I spent a lot more time flying to Beijing, and a lot of money in fees and travel costs and time off work.
    But the US Embassy, after saying it needs these things, did not even look at them! And why did I need to go all the way to Beijing for a short interview where I was given no opportunity to explain why I should be allowed a visa?
    I feel cheated.

  9. terence r. cummings

    I have been astounded by the increasing denial of visas for people who want to visit our country. The comments above are so true and the tales they relate are sickening. I recall the tale of the passengers that waited 10 hours in line to visit the US from a cruise ship that had been already given blanket visa authority. I want to scream every time I read about something like this. I wish there was a way to send this to Herself so she would know others want a change.

  10. David,
    I co-chair an international forum for a professional organization in the USA. International speakers have great difficulty in getting visas (Chinese in particular) to present papers. They start months in advance and simply cannot wade through the paperwork and delays in interviews to make the meeting. We are missing some very interesting and professional papers which would contribute to the overall scientific knowledge. We are deprived of their knowledge and experience and they are kept from gaining new knowledge and friends — a lose-lose situation.
    Another experience is that European friends who used to travel to the USA periodically as tourists and to visit friends have told me that they will not travel to the USA again — it is degrading to them because the immigration and security persons are unfriendly and abrasive. Some are well off and would spend generously in the USA. As an American, I have experienced some of this, BUT in all fairness, have experienced compassion from these same people. Once at Dulles Airport, the metal detector went off — and I realized that I had forgotten to put my small Swiss Army knife in my checked luggage. The TSA person suggested I go back to Air France to see if my bag had been sent down the chute — he even helped me close up my briefcase and helped me out of the security area. Although my suitcase had already gone down the chute, the AF agent took my knife, printed out another baggage claim sticker and put it on a padded envelope he provided and the next day my bags and envelope appeared on the baggage conveyor belt at my destination in France after making the connection to my onward plane at another terminal at CDG. This cost the TSA person maybe 30 seconds and sure made me think highly of him.

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