The case against travel visas: –– and why they impede cultural exchange

SHEREEN LEE / AGGIE

Stringent visa policies harm the average citizen more than we realize

Let it be known that travel visas are a nuisance. Sure, they mark passports in exotic hues of purple, green and red like trophies in your own personal case. To some, indeed, a chalked-up passport is the ultimate beacon of globetrotting success. Yet visas remind travelers how even the momentary thrill of traversing international boundaries can be marred by bureaucracy. They can also be agonizingly painful to get.

Documents allowing safe passage through foreign lands are nothing new. The book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible tells of an official who requests “letters” for his journey to Jerusalem, most likely in the 5th century B.C. Henry V of England issued a document of “safe conduct” in 1414. Following the First World War, what we call passports today became much more ubiquitous and standardized, deemed necessary by Western governments for managing the flow of immigrants and refugees fleeing destruction in Europe. It’s this little booklet that determines who can go where in the global theater.

Buried within passports are the visa pages, where a sticker or stamp allows the traveler to cross national boundaries according to local rules (sometimes an electronic visa accomplishes this instead). There are short-term visas for things like tourism, business trips and medical visits as well as long-term visas that are issued for studying and working.

Visas, in their current form, allow immigration officials to siphon through and keep track of foreign visitors. There can be good reasons for doing this. Visas are often imposed on citizens from countries mired in unrest, violence and terrorism — an added layer of security that may prevent such hostile elements from spilling over.

On the other hand, diplomatic quid pro quo gives governments leverage over the actions of travelers when global politics takes center stage. If country X imposes strict entry requirements on citizens of country Y for its territorial aggression, for example, country Y can reciprocate by issuing more stringent visa policies in retaliation. Government egos may leave unscathed, but cooperation — and all its benefits — takes a hit.

Tourism also suffers. Bearers of an Israeli passport are barred from entering a host of Middle Eastern countries, and even presenting an Israeli entry stamp in a non-Israeli passport will prevent access to Iran, Kuwait and Lebanon, among others. Exploration and friendly overtures between cultures is more difficult with harsher visa and passport laws.

Many visa requirements are quite stringent, which can discourage potential visitors. To acquire a visa for Russia — which I’m in the middle of doing for my semester studying abroad — applicants must navigate a complex system of questions and bureaucratic backlogs. Visa applicants must obtain an invitation letter from a Russian organization or host resident. (Mine took eight weeks to arrive, and I was helped by a third party.) The online questionnaire can take hours and includes personal questions about prior military service, work experience and whether the applicant has ever been involved in charitable or “civil” organizations. Those staying longer than 90 days are required to supply a blood test proving they don’t have HIV. To many travelers, this can seem daunting.

Though visas are required for many wanderlust-worthy journeys, there are some exceptions where diplomatic alliance-making has eased international travel. The Schengen Agreement — stemming from the resurgent friendliness of France and Germany in the decades following the Second World War — allows holders of the singular Schengen Visa to travel throughout its 26 European member states essentially visa-free. The United States has a visa waiver program that allows nationals of 38 countries to visit with only an Electronic System for Travel Authorization form instead, which bypasses the entrenched slowdowns of the visa application.

Other such agreements exist, and they usually benefit everyone involved. Governments find an easy way to publicize their cooperation with one another. Citizens can forego the red tape and reap the rewards of simple travel. Businesses are allowed to expand into zones that once inhibited their growth potential (which is why the coming Brexit negotiations on trade are so consequential).

In the age of explosive border-wall talk and rocket men, the doors are closing on an era of openness and globalism. Visas are a case in point. They enhance the barriers between nations and do nothing to help the little guys — ordinary people looking for pleasure, knowledge or survival on the other side.

 

Written by: Nick Irvin –– ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

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