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US to the World: Stay Home

With depressingly greater frequency, I find the actions of my government make me embarrassed by it, if not outright ashamed. Today, it's about passports and visas, prompted by two stories in the Wall Street Journal. The first reports on new passport and visa rules for visitors from low-risk nations (mostly Western European):

Under legislation enacted following the [9/11] attacks, the State Department is requiring citizens of 27 mostly western European nations, who normally don't need a visa to now travel here, have updated, high-tech passports by this fall. If they don't, they must go through the increasingly time consuming visa-application process as a security check.

Meanwhile, another measure soon to take effect requires most visa applicants to undergo in-person interviews with U.S. consular officials overseas, a move expected to greatly increase consular service workload and further delay a slowed visa-processing system. Business, tourism and international education organizations, already concerned about the interview requirement, say nationals of the "visa waiver" countries that don't have the high-tech passports will only add to the long lines and delays in visa processing...

The 27 participating countries are considered to be low-risk because they don't have severe economic or political problems that would cause their nationals to seek to stay in the U.S. illegally, and also because they aren't considered countries who harbor or support terrorists.

Many are important U.S. allies, such as Japan and the United Kingdom... But since the terror attacks, the visa-waiver program has come under repeated scrutiny amid questions about possible security threats...

Justice officials considered ending the program entirely, but reconsidered after the State Department voiced concerns about the affect on U.S. relations abroad and the high cost of requiring visas and interviews for citizens of the 27 nations.

The second story is on the US government's decision to effectively end the right of shore leave for merchant ship crews:

Every one of the world shipping industry's 1.2 million merchant mariners will be required to carry a biometric identity card under a convention adopted at a meeting of the International Labor Organization in Geneva.

The objective is to weed out potential terrorists who may infiltrate crews, but the country that pushed hardest for the new treaty -- the U.S. -- still won't be satisfied. The U.S. will continue to demand that crews have visas as well as ID cards...

Two years ago, an immigration agent could have waived the visa requirement. But since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, authorities have all but done away with waivers. And while screening makes it tough for individual seamen to get visas, the State Department is abolishing the blanket crew visas it once granted freely.

Effectively, that means the right of shore leave has also been abolished, especially for seamen on tramp ships with no U.S. ports of call to list in advance on visa applications. New York's Center for Seafarers' Rights has found that on 40% of ships in several ports some seamen are refused a chance to step ashore. There are around 900,000 seamen visits to the U.S. annually.

"They see them as potential terrorists," says Doug Stevenson, a maritime lawyer who heads the rights center. "But who's better able to find things out of the ordinary on a ship than the crew?"

Mr. Stevenson believes the ILO agreement on a foolproof ID would remove any need for visas. Shore leave, he argues, has been a seaman's right for centuries, and no nation but the U.S. requires crew visas at all. But America is sticking to its guns.

If we continue to treat those who would visit us with ever-greater rudeness, one day we will find that they don't visit us so much, and that when we visit them, we're treated the same way. Is that the sort of world in which we want to live? Is that the legacy of the victims of 9/11?

A friend of mine who's not a US citizen told me recently of his experience entering the US at Sea-Tac airport. A Japanese family -- husband, wife, and children -- was ahead of him. The INS agent asked the husband about the declaration he had filled out, in which he had apparently checked the "Pleasure" box (and not "Business"). "Are you doing any business while you're here?" the agent asked. The husband replied that he was planning on stopping by his company's Los Angeles offices while there, but no, that he was in the US for a vacation with his family. "That means you're doing business," the agent said. "You've just perjured yourself by falsifying this form." The agent went on to say that, while he could throw the husband in jail, he wouldn't. Instead, he'd allow his wife and children to stay, but he was putting the husband on the next flight back to Tokyo.

This will come back to haunt us. All of it.

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