The Cost of Fencing Out: America’s Backwards Visa Policies


I have some property in a rustic part of Colorado not far from the 120 mile long Rainbow Trail in the Rockies. I also get a decent tax deal on the land because I have an arrangement with a cattle farmer to allow grazing on the land. Colorado is a “fence out” state meaning that if cattle come into a ranch area, those cattle are free to roam everywhere — unless “fenced out” by property holders.
This is probably a bad metaphor for what is happening today geopolitically in the United States — but the fenced out/fenced in realities of modern America are a useful template to think about an evolving “fortress mentality” among Americans — both inside the country and between the United States and the rest of the world.
For the most part, America has not maintained high fences to those from abroad. America has maintained over the two plus centuries of its formalized nationhood a fairly low bar to immigration and travel here. In fact, much of the nation’s success is due to the fact that America has been the direct beneficiary of the rest of the world’s brain drain.
This may be in danger today as American borders are thicker than ever and that fear about allowing terrorists inside the nation is so great that whole classes of foreign visitors are subjected to a fickle, unpredictable, and inhospitable visa application and review process that telegraphs our national disinterest and ambivalence about nations and their citizens who aren’t lucky enough to be included in a U.S. visa waiver program.
There are sophisticated methodologies that can help screen bad people from good — and we need to rely more on these and less on the clunky, expensive, and inefficient visa interview process that blocks so many from coming to America — particularly from developing nations — and which often charges them $100 for the application fee, only to find that they have in the end been rejected.
The back side of neoconservatism has always been isolationism. They go hand in hand.
Today, we really need to promote people to people exchanges. This is the best way that the rest of the world can understand that our objectives as a country are diverse, benign, hopeful, and not consistent with the image that Bush, Cheney, and Rove have generated.
I am speaking on this subject today with two colleagues from conservative circles who believe as strongly as I do that the United States is undermining itself by not promoting more visa-waived travel from countries in Eastern Europe like Poland and Hungary. I am also a great believer in the benefits of trade, people-to-people exchanges, and unrestricted travel in cases like Cuba. As Republican Congressman Jeff Flake recently said at a New America Foundation meeting I chaired: “When it comes to traveling anywhere in the world, I would rather have a Communist nation trying to block me rather than my own government.”
For those free today and on short notice, I will be joining James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation and Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute today at 12:00 noon in Room 2200 of the Rayburn House Office Building. Sandwiches will be provided.
— Steve Clemons


8 comments on “The Cost of Fencing Out: America’s Backwards Visa Policies

  1. nope says:

    Hey Former Friend!
    Make it for life, dipsh*t! I for one, am now boycotting anything made in marxist europe…


  2. wkmaier says:

    This is interesting, Arthur Frommer’s most recent syndicated column was about much the same thing, although he was writing more about tourism coming TO the US. Former Friend, above, makes clear their reasons for not traveling to the US, and that is their choice.
    Frommer said that DHS has actually proposed that Visa exempt countries will face additional obstacles, in the form of requiring those individuals to submit biographical data and detailed travel plans upon entering the US.
    Heck, isn’t this the same government that could not foresee the passport backlog?


  3. Former friend says:

    Well, I am one of your former friends from old Europe, lived in New York for some years in the Eighties, and came back as a tourist several times later. Even then, your border formalities were comparatively obnoxious, though I travelled on diplomatic passport and needed no visa.
    However, until you guys return to a reasonable approximation of respecting the rule of law, and openly reject and apologize for the policies of imprisoning and renditioning foreigners, I am not setting foot on your territory again. I am also buying non-US goods whenever possible ever since 2003.
    No matter how far your dollar falls, and how cheap a vacation there becomes, this in one visitor who will shun you, and for reasons of principle, since I would run little personal risk. And I know many others who feel as I do.


  4. jon says:

    Current US visa and immigration policy is counterproductive. We are now actively discouraging the brightest, most energetic and productive people from coming and contributing to our society. I know people who will not visit because it has become so difficult and humiliating. This is not the message to be sending to the world, particularly with all the rest of our foreign policy missteps.
    The discussion should be focused on:
    the issues of visas and the mechanics of entry to the country;
    work permits for foreign nationals;
    naturalization procedures;
    and border security.
    They are not the same thing. Some of these issues have larger policy and societal ramifications.
    We must have reasonably secure borders, also encourage widespread visitation, and be clear and consistent about work regulations for foreign nationals. Rounding up low paid workers who look hispanic and are trying to be paid better is not a successful policy. Looking Muslim or coming from an islamic country shouldn’t automatically ratchet up the difficulties of obtaining a visa or negotiating customs. We must be striving to counter potential terrorists while building good will. With less good will we will certainly suffer more terrorism, in the US and elsewhere.


  5. liz says:

    I wholeheartedly agree Steve. Your best post ever.


  6. john somer says:

    This is the view from an “outsider”. After 12 years as a “resident alien” with my American wife frothing at the mouth at every mention of W or Dick, we came back to Europe and I returned my green card to the US embassy. I have no intention to travel back to the US after reading about Sen Ted Kennedy being on a no-fly list and the Supreme Court deciding that a non-citizen can be held for an indefinite period of time without appearing before a magistrate. Too damn dangerous to try and visit the US…


  7. Marcia says:

    “Today, we really need to promote people to people exchanges. This is the best way that the rest of the world can understand that our objectives as a country are diverse, benign, hopeful, and not consistent with the image that Bush, Cheney, and Rove have generated.”
    The rest of the world especially the poorest who took the brunt of our foreign policies for many many years before B/C have little reason to accept that our objectives are diverse, benign or hopeful. In talk our behavior is always altruistic…the spread of democracy, the elemination of poverty etc. when the reality on the ground is quite different. It would be difficult to count the number of countries that have been looted of their raw materials, those whose American trained police and army were turned on defencless populations, the “Free Trade” policies offering international funds freeways to take direct or indirect control of whole swaths of their economies. B/C took off the gloves but the iron fist was clinched long before their arrival, they added the premptive military option.
    One of the great changes in modern travel is that there are few person to person exchanges. The busloads of foreign travelers “doing” this country or that are now a monetary commodity.
    They meet porters, waiters and other service people, generally in a setting of luxury hotels and over-loaded buffets, there is rarely any real exchange.
    This is regrettable especially since I think the greatest need if for us to garner a better understanding of the rest of the world of which a great majority of our population has little knowledge due to distance and lack of curosity.


  8. Carroll says:

    Don’t know much about the visa problem but I wouldn’t say our borders are thicker than ever because of fear of terrorist…the Mexican border is still wide open and a great gateway for would be terriers.
    Seems to me we are targeting certain visitors only…mainly ME. And then too I believe I read several times about various public figures from abroad, academics and authors, who don’t agree with the neocon world view being barred using one excuse or another from entering the US for speaking tours and what have you.
    I too am in favor of wide open exchanges and travel between the US and other countries but I also am becoming more isolationist in other aspects.
    I don’t equate isolationism with having no exchange and interaction at all with the world, I think of it more as pulling in our military and interventionalist horns and cleaning up at home and reassesting our interest and direction.
    But no matter…the open and free exchanges won’t really happen in a positive and fair way until we get rid of the agenda people in the US who are influencing who does and does not get into the US for their own purpose…as I said we have to start at home first…or we are wasting our time on everything else.


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