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Visa Stupidity

A young, pro-American, “neolibertarian” blogger from Argentina named Pablo Martin Pozzoni recently wrote me this lament:

A few months ago I got the chance that I never have had before: to visit the country that I admire the most, because of what it is and represents, I had to stubbornly defend my decision against the hysterical anti-Americanism for which my country is well known…. This simple dream was cut short…not because of an economic or political situation in my country [but] by the Embassy of the United States…. Without taking into account my motivations or interests, I was considered something that anybody that knows me, and I am well known in Internet, will realize that is unthinkable and even laughable: a potential illegal immigrant.

It reminded me of other such tales. The Czech Republic and Poland, two of our staunchest allies, were on the brink of winning non-visa entry into the U.S. for their citizens, which several western European countries enjoy, when the deal was scotched by 9/11. Instead, would-be Czech and Polish visitors have to shell out a couple of hundred bucks for a visa application (which is not refundable) and wait on long lines. If this doesn’t cure their philo-Americanism, nothing will.

The ostensible reason is security, but I doubt there has ever been a Czech or Polish terrorist who targeted the U.S. The real purpose of the screening process is to weed out anyone who might wish to stay in the U.S. But what harm, exactly, would a few Czech, Polish, or Argentine illegal immigrants do? And is that harm—such as it might be—worth the ill will we invite at a time when we have a serious dearth of foreign friends?

The stories get even more absurd. This June, when President Bush tried to revivify his democracy-promotion agenda by delivering a stem-winder at a conference in Prague organized by Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel, and meeting with a group of dissidents from around the world, the most important Iranian dissident who had been invited was unable to attend. Mohsen Sazegara was scheduled to be one of the conference’s speakers, but he was forced to cancel: U.S. immigration authorities refused to promise him undelayed reentry into the U.S. (where he lives in exile).

When the Baathist former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam joined with Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddin Baynouni to form the National Salvation Front, the U.S. found itself in a quandary. It wanted to encourage this exile operation— which promised to be the most powerful opposition to the recalcitrant Assad regime—but it was reluctant to embrace these two men. The solution hit upon by U.S. officials was to work through Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian liberal with whom the U.S. felt comfortable, and who was elected to the NSF executive committee. However, Abdulhamid was severely constrained in trying to influence the NSF: he could not attend any of its meetings, which are held in various locations across Europe. Abdulhamid has been living in the U.S. with temporary asylum status for two years, waiting to be granted permanent asylum. In the meantime, U.S. authorities refuse to give him a travel document.

If the arguments about security are absurd when it comes to Czechs and Poles, in the cases of Sazegara and Abdulhamid, there is no conceivable security issue. They already live in the U.S. Of course we need to scrutinize carefully potential terrorists who want to enter our shores. But surely we can do that and at the same time make it easy for friendly foreigners to visit or study here, or to take asylum here when their struggles for freedom endanger their lives.

Before 9/11, our responsible agencies made it easy for anyone to enter, including known terrorists. Now they make it difficult even for known friends. Previously, our border security was disarmed. Now we have loaded up and shot ourselves in the foot. There must be a better way.



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