President Donald Trump has made clear his view that the U.S. doesn’t need any more immigrants. The mystery is why a veteran of the hospitality business would be so inhospitable to tourists, traveling executives, students and other visitors.
Consider the State Department’s ill-advised plan to impose new screening requirements on the roughly 14 million people who apply each year for temporary visas. It would require every visa-seeker to disclose five years’ worth of social media profiles, travel histories, email addresses, telephone numbers and other information.
This would do nothing to make the U.S. more secure. Post-9/11 vetting procedures have already greatly reduced the risk of a terrorist getting a visa, and U.S. officials can request additional information from applicants as needed. From 2002 to 2016, the rate for terrorists getting through was 1 for every 379 million visa or status approvals, according to one analysis. The overwhelming majority of U.S. terrorism offenders have been either born, raised or radicalized domestically, or extradited by law enforcement.
Meanwhile, temporary visitors are a wellspring of American economic strength. In 2016, more than 70 million arrivals spent nearly $250 billion, supporting several million jobs and generating 11 percent of exports. Foreign visitors spend far more than their domestic counterparts do: In Trump’s hometown of New York City, they accounted for just one-fifth of visitors but spent four times as much as American out-of-towners did.
What these foreigners take home with them is also critically important: firsthand exposure to all that makes America great. There’s no more cost-effective way to amplify U.S. soft power.
Sadly, the Trump administration doesn’t recognize this. It has repeatedly made life harder for visa-seekers, who represent 40 percent of overseas visitors. (Citizens from 38 mostly wealthy countries can travel to the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program.) In addition to his controversial travel restrictions on a group of mostly Muslim countries, Trump has rescinded programs that made it easier for travelers to return – forcing applicants in Argentina and Brazil, for instance, to revisit U.S. consulates for in-person interviews.
Many visa-seekers already wait weeks for interviews. More vetting will slow things further. Last year, even as the number of travelers worldwide continued to rise, the U.S. issued nearly 700,000 fewer visas than in 2016. That included a 9 percent drop in visas for business and tourism, and a 17 percent drop in those for students.
It’s true that total international visits to the U.S. increased last year (except from the Middle East and Africa). Yet the U.S. share of the global travel market is shrinking. Whether for tourists, trade show attendees or would-be students, the U.S. faces growing competition. During the 2016-17 school year, new foreign-student enrollment dropped by 3 percent – a decline that is projected to double this year.
This new requirement only shrinks the American welcome mat by overloading visitors with bureaucratic hassle and needlessly invading their privacy.
Worse yet, it targets the foreigners for whom the U.S. should be a beacon: citizens from emerging markets, democracies seeking solidarity and inspiration, and would-be allies in the fight against terror. Never mind the dollars not spent at Disneyland. Every bona fide traveler discouraged by the new screening requirements represents something harder to calculate: a further loss of America’s fast-disappearing soft power.
Bloomberg View editorial.