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Wedding Blues

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2007

Yes, a country has a right to enforce its borders.

But the day-to-day practice of our border enforcement is beginning to take on a shape that places the United States low on the humaneness scale. I’m not even talking about the wall we are about to build along the border with Mexico. Some of the most dubious and denigrating practices are happening in the mundane and out-of-view world of U.S. consulates abroad. Our message to millions of honest people abroad trying to visit our country legally is, “Don’t even try.”

Consider the story Dr. Carola Fleener has to tell. Before she became a pediatrician in Sarasota, Fleener raised three children in Valencia, Venezuela. When her first baby was born, she found a nanny who moved in with the family and cared for the children—for 15 years. The nanny made it possible for Fleener to become Dr. Fleener and was there from the first diaper. She attended all school graduations, and she even came to the eldest son’s wedding here in the U.S.

But that was in the early 1990s, a different era.

In the past five years, the aging nanny (she is now in her mid-60s) applied every year for another tourist visa with the U.S. consulate in Caracas to visit “her children.” Every single one was denied. A consular officer rejected the 2005 application, even though Dr. Fleener provided the nanny with a thick file, including an affidavit of support and a letter explaining the reason of her visit. Not enough ties to guarantee her return to Venezuela, the officer argued—in spite of the nanny’s age, a large family in her home country, proof of home ownership and a letter from her current employer.

In November last year, Dr. Fleener’s second son—actually his bride—invited the nanny to their January 2007 wedding in Sarasota. Not one to give up easily, Dr. Fleener encouraged the nanny to try again. She should have known better.

A consular officer told the nanny she wouldn’t get an appointment before March. So Fleener got on the phone with the consulate. First, she was asked to give her credit card number and charged $20 for the call. The answer to her was the same: The nanny wouldn’t get an appointment until March. But then Fleener was told she could call daily, to see if there were “any changes in the appointment schedule.” Fleener did that for five days in a row, at a charge of $20 per call. One hundred dollars later, the consular staffer found an appointment for the nanny—the next morning, at 7 a.m.

So the little old lady went into a mad dash. She filled out a visa application form on the Internet, went to her bank to get a cashier’s check for the $150 visa application fee, and then traveled from Valencia to Caracas overnight to be at the consulate first thing in the morning.

The audience with the consular officer lasted five minutes, max. She passed her passport to the clerk, who raised his hand when she was about to open her mouth. She was not allowed to show the papers she had brought with her: the title to the home she has owned for a lifetime, photos of her daughters and grandchildren, documents showing she receives a government retirement pension, letter of employment from her current employer, bank statements, the wedding invitation, letter from Fleener stating she would cover her expenses while in the U.S.

The officer told the nanny the same thing she had heard after her previous applications: not enough ties to Venezuela. And she should not reapply until her circumstances had changed.

In other words, unless the little old lady wins the lottery, she’s out of luck.

Now Fleener, being the businesswoman she is, threw a fit about what she perceives as a rip-off, and the fees U.S. consulates charge. Indeed, if you consider the cash U.S. consular officers bring in daily, they should be paid like neurosurgeons, Fleener suggests. At $150 per five-minute appointment, a productive work hour should yield $1,800 per clerk for Uncle Sam, not including the “appointment scheduling” revenue.

But Fleener’s concern goes beyond money: “What is happening in this country that our closest friends cannot visit us for special family occasions?” she asks.

Now think for a moment what the nanny’s kind of experience triggers in people’s minds if it is reproduced millions of times by our consular officers. And I can assure you, it is.

***

Perceptions among Latin Americans aside—another problem is only a handful of businesspeople along the Gulf Coast seem interested in inbound tourism from Latin America. Meanwhile, the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau just launched a Spanish-language segment on its Web site. That comes on the heels of a Walt Disney World announcement that it added high-dollar quinceañera parties to its special-events marketing.

***

Knowing how tough our government makes it to bring talent from Latin America to the United States, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays opened its very own baseball academy in Guacara, Venezuela in May. The new baseball school, for up to 40 students, comes in addition to the Campo Las Palmas academy in the Dominican Republic the Rays share with the LA Dodgers.

***

Talking about border enforcement, here’s my favorite recent news item: The owner of San Diego-based Golden State Fence was sentenced by a San Diego judge for hiring undocumented foreigners to build part of the new wall, the Washington Times reported. Golden State Fence is a contractor in the U.S. government’s effort to build a fence along the Southwest border. Possibly because of the high profile of this case, company owner Mel Kay Jr., 64, got six months of home confinement.

***

Fort Lauderdale-based Spirit Airlines is trying to tap into Florida’s large immigrant population to fill its planes and become a major profitable player in hemispheric travel. The no-frills airline is boosting its Latin connections with new nonstop flights from Fort Lauderdale to Puerto Rico, Haiti, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Peru, offering bargain basement fares.

Don’t discard this as a “Miami thing.” Remember, 40,000-plus Sarasota and Manatee county residents have roots and family links in Mexico and Central America.

There’s a huge obstacle to nonstop Sarasota-Guadalajara, Sarasota-Monterrey or Sarasota-Guatemala City flights by an airline such as Spirit, though. It’s political: Many of the thousands of potential air passengers here don’t have the papers necessary to get past the Homeland Security agents at an airport. Their underground existence forces many immigrants to stay put, and into cars and buses when they do dare to travel to their home countries. But, boy, would they fly back and forth if the risks weren’t existential.

So before you start discussing immigration reform again, think about the economic boost a generous amnesty law could give our local economy and airport.

***

St. Petersburg-based contract manufacturer Jabil Circuit opened a $30 million assembly plant in Vietnam in June. Jabil’s clients use the plant to export their products to other markets; the company plans to invest another $70 million over time in Vietnam.

Similar story with Broward County-based DHL: The courier company plans to invest $6.5 million into two service centers in Vietnam, DHL’s fastest-growing market worldwide.

Why do we care? Jabil and DHL could do the same 100 miles from their Florida headquarters in Cuba—a country that has never been involved in a bloody war with us that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives—if it wasn’t for the U.S. embargo against the island.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.

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