Rolling Back the Welcome Mat

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2004

Early last year, a young British entrepreneur was approved for an investor's visa and bought an $800,000 motel in Clearwater. After he put about $75,000 worth of improvements into the property, says his immigration attorney, P. Christopher Jaensch of Sarasota, the businessman was told he could pick up his visa from the American Embassy in London on Sept. 15, 2003.

But when he arrived, says Jaensch, "The woman there said she hadn't had time to review the paperwork, and she'd get back to him." Two months later, despite repeated inquiries, the client still had not received his visa. "Now he's in limbo trying to figure out what to do," says Jaensch.

His client is not alone, as hundreds of foreigners trying to come here-whether to visit for a week, stay for six months, or start a business and live here-face new post-9/11 requirements that some local experts fear will drive them away altogether.

Around the country, immigration lawyers, corporate traveler professionals, academics, scientists and tourism officials have protested, pointing to the negative effect the new rules might have.

Sarasota and Manatee don't have vast high-tech corridors or huge research facilities that draw large numbers of foreign workers. But we do have thousands of foreign visitors including middle- to high-income snowbirds who can afford to own a second house and business in the United States. And these groups, say locals in the know, are affected as much by the perception of new difficulties as by the reality.

"There's an iffi-ness now," says Brenda Halversen, a certified business intermediary and partner at Gulfshore Acquisitions in Sarasota. "It's not a done deal any more."

Halversen helps people buy businesses, and about 20 percent of her clients are from Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany, with a smattering from South America. Many of her clients, she says, come on an investor's visa and apply for permanent residency after they arrive. (Immigration professionals admit that buying a business is often a route to permanent resident status since many of these people sell their businesses once they get a green card.) Since 9/11, her clients have faced longer waiting periods for visas and more paperwork, and these delays have sometimes cost them a deal.

"Sellers don't want to wait for someone to get their visa and come here," Halversen says. "It's a contingency."

Before 9/11, coming to the United States as a visitor was easy for most people. They just had to apply for a B1/B2 visitor visa, which allowed them to stay here for up to six months. If you were a citizen of one of 27 countries participating in a Visa Waiver Program, you could even come here without a visa and stay for up to 90 days.

Now, even citizens of the United Kingdom and Australia (both part of the Visa Waiver Program) will have to get visas unless they can produce by October 2004 a "biometric" passport containing a machine-readable chip with a digital photo and identifying details about that person's physical image. Critics complain that many of these countries will not be able to make the switch to machine-readable passports by that deadline. As well as paperwork and a $100 non-refundable fee, visa applicants must make an appointment at the local American consulate for a personal interview, which can take weeks. All male applicants between the ages of 16 and 45 also must list, with dates, the last 10 countries they visited, note all the professional, social and charitable organizations to which they have contributed, and supply a complete itinerary with arrival and departure dates, flight information and points of contact. In some cases, visas that once took days to process are taking six months or longer.

There is also the issue of dual jurisdiction. If you file for your visa in England, the paperwork goes to the BCIS (Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) in America to be assessed. If the visa is approved, the BCIS forwards the paperwork to the consulate in London, and you get a call for an interview. But the interview is conducted by consular officers, who are Department of State employees, not BCIS employees, and the two agencies don't always agree about who should get a visa. Consular officers are also dealing with complicated procedures and more paperwork, without an increase in staff. Anecdotes abound of people who were denied without the consular office even looking at their paperwork; of being told to bring more paperwork; or of having their cases re-routed to the BCIS, a situation widely viewed as a hopeless black hole.

Even if they are issued a visa, visitors worry that they can turn up at the border or airport and be turned away at the whim of an immigration officer. A much publicized INS suggestion-which never came to pass-limiting foreigners to 30-day stays before filing for an extension has added to the perception that the United States had become a difficult place to visit.

"It's the uncertainty and the length of time it's taking now to get these quality people through the system-it's amazing," says Derick Coles, CEO of New Horizons Florida, a one-stop shop of relocation services for people looking to set up businesses and move to or within America.

Coles, who works in the company's Sarasota and London offices, says the British are especially upset and puzzled at the harsh, often arbitrary, treatment dished out by consular officials, especially in light of the much-publicized closeness between their respective leaders and cooperation over Iraq.

"These people will consider other options," says Coles. "Definitely, we are losing them."

Even after arriving here, foreign visitors face post-9/11 rules that make it difficult to get Social Security numbers (and thus build credit) and drivers' licenses. Before, just about anybody intending to reside in Florida could obtain a drivers license, which expired naturally after six years for safe drivers and four years for people with infractions-the same as for anyone who lives here. Now in Florida, foreigners' drivers license expiration dates are tied to their visa expiration dates. An intra-company transferee, for example, can stay for three years, and his license will be valid for that time. For many visitors, especially for some of the wealthy ones who own second homes here, lining up at the drivers license office each time they enter the country is a cumbersome process they feel they can do without, especially since the hassle begins at the airport when they try to rent a car to get to the driver's license office.

"This is really hurting business," says Klaus Lang, a realtor at Michael Saunders & Company. "I haven't had one single European who came to me in the last six months and said, 'I want to buy.'" One of Lang's European clients, who has lived here 22 years and owns several properties, is now selling everything. "He was going to build a big house on the bay-he had plans drawn up and everything," says Lang.

"There's a definite increase in the number of people who are selling earlier than they would have," agrees Rennea Glendinning, accountant and shareholder at Kerkering, Barberio & Co. who has a large European clientele. One Italian client of Glendinning's who had been wintering here for 30 years was so appalled by her treatment at the license office that she has vowed never to come back. Another British man who went to change his address on his license had it promptly taken away. These people are considering alternatives, such as Italy, Greece and especially Spain.

"They're not made to feel welcome here; we've shot ourselves in the foot," says Glendenning. "All they do when they come here is spend money. They shop, they eat out, they buy big homes."

Cole estimates that New Horizons itself pumps about half a billion dollars into the state each year. Not only do foreign snowbirds live, invest and buy here, they bring a following of visitors almost year-round.

"It starts from Saks Fifth Avenue all the way to the tire store," says Lang.

During the past academic year, nearly 600,000 foreign students spent $12.9 billion in the United States. But the Association of American Universities reports that such students are facing delays getting here, resulting in delays in scientific research, students losing fellowships and classes left without instructors.

At Manatee Community College, the income from international students, who pay full, out-of-state tuition, supports 25 full-time staff positions, says Bill Hekking, coordinator of veterans and international students at the college. Hekking says in the fall of 2001, MCC recorded its first decline in international students in the past 12 years. This year, enrollment dropped from 185 students in the spring to 93 students in fall, says Hekking. Forty-four percent of AAU universities reported that students who missed their start dates because of visa delays went to study in other countries.

After 9/11, there were huge drops in European visitation, and a faltering world economy didn't help, either, says Larry White, executive director for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. This year, things have improved; first-quarter figures for the state show a six percent gain in overseas visitors, with Canadian visitation up eight percent. Bookings for next year show some rallying, says White. But he worries that visa interviews and a new law requiring fingerprinting for visitors may make Europeans decide to seek out beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka or Cuba instead. Also worried is the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, which fears that with fingerprinting, interviews and delays, many corporations will take their seminars and millions of dollars elsewhere. Reece Pierce, president of Sarasota-based American Medical Seminars, says so far, the numbers have held steady. "But immigration didn't start getting tough till the beginning of '02," says Pierce. "There's not been enough time yet for strict enforcement to take effect. This year will really start telling the trend."

Still, many hope that this era of blanket, black-and-white decisions will pass, and a more considered approach may emerge. Jaensch says that already, the situation is getting a little easier as officials and applicants become more familiar with new policy.

"Six months ago, it was difficult to even advise a client," he says. "Now, there's some predictability. That's what people want. They can live with anything once they know what to expect."

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