Pass or Fail: Updates in the “Visa Wars”

Maybe it’s on your radar, maybe its not—but a few weeks ago the E.U. voted to implement a new policy for American tourists requiring a visa to travel to Europe. It’s the latest development in what’s known as the “visa war”—an ongoing dispute based on the fact that the United States still enforces a strict visa policy for five European Union countries: Poland, Cyprus, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania despite agreements not to. In a tit-for-tat move, the E.U. finally decided to strike back and require Americans to get visas when they hop across the Atlantic.

The process for the last few years has been an open-border policy between the U.S. and the E.U. European nationals need to complete a form for travel authorization (the ESTA), which is typically granted within a few days, if not a few hours. And U.S. citizens get a stamp on arrival and unrestricted visitation throughout what’s known as the Shengen region for 90 days. All well and good. But see, reciprocity only works when it’s reciprocal, and leaving certain countries out because of their socioeconomic status is well…not reciprocal.

So now the E.U. is considering what this new policy will look like. While the new policy’s effective date is still undetermined, the reactions to it have been interesting to watch. As Americans, we can enter most popular touristy destination countries with little to no hassle—a simple visa-on-arrival, maybe a minimal fee. I remember a sense of shock when, planning my trip to Brazil in 2010, I realized that I needed to pay $160 for a tourist visa—even thought my trip was less than two weeks long. It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

The experience with my Brazilian passport made me far more sympathetic to those who have to adhere to the stringent tourist visa processes in the States. I was lucky that I had a Brazilian consulate in the city I was living in—otherwise the special trip to get the visa may have scrapped both my travel budget and my travel plans. I recently read a very detailed account of what a Bulgarian national has to go through in order to visit the U.S., and it’s neither cheap nor funny:

I have to fill out a form on the US embassy website, accompanied by a photo with specific quality and dimensions. I have to schedule an appointment at the US Embassy (I either have to fly home to Bulgaria, or go to Madrid, since I now live in Spain). I have to pay a fee of $160, nonrefundable. I have to show up for an in-person interview…[where]…I have to present a body of evidence proving that I don’t aim to immigrate to the United States, but only want to have a good vacation and eat chicken wings in LA’s Chinatown, like any other traveler would. This “evidence” includes my work contract, my apartment lease, an invite from whoever I am visiting in the US with his/her address and a document that proves his/her status in the country (Good luck visiting a non-citizen). I have to specify where I will be staying, how long and provide a phone number where I can be reached at all times.

In comparison, if my friend from Los Angeles wants to visit me, all he needs to do is hop on a plane and get his passport stamped upon arrival in Spain.”

When all the particulars are spelled out…yeah, that seems unfair.

As for me, I have kind of mixed feelings about the “visa war”. In terms of the big picture, it is in some ways cool to see the rest of the world standing up to the U.S. and making us honor our policy promises. On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted. Americans in general aren’t good at getting out of bubbles—and many, when they do choose to leave the 50 States, will head to Europe because it has a sense of the familiar.

On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted.

So while I think it’s really important and right to have to answer for our governmental failures, I also worry that Americans will be so turned off by it (though let’s be honest, they will probably be turned off not by the actual policy forms than by the breathlessly overblown news coverage) and hunker down further into their comfort zones, further depriving the U.S. of the broader perspective we so desperately need right now.

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