A visitor to the United States naturally would like to avoid long lines, long waits and long questioning at the customs and immigration gates. Well, the U.S. government has the answer — for better or worse.
The solution is ESTA, which is short for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Its website sets forth the rules for its Visa Waiver Program and the “enhanced security requirements” that come with it.
For starters, the prospective traveler has to pay a $14 fee. Then comes a questionnaire — a long one. Among many other things, it asks whether you have any physical or mental illness (including Lymphogranuloma venereum), have been involved in moral turpitude, espionage, sabotage, terrorism, drug abuse or “persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies.”
Still other questions are: “Have you ever detained, retained or withheld custody of a child from a U.S. citizen granted custody of the child?” and have you “committed a serious criminal offense in the United States as defined in 8 U.S.C Sec. 1101(h), including any felony, at any time for which immunity from criminal jurisdiction was exercised?”
Next comes an agreement to waive “any rights to review or appeal of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer’s determination as to my admissibility.”
Then comes the question: “When must I obtain a visa instead of using the Visa Waiver Program?” The answers: If you intend to arrive in the United States on a nonsignatory air carrier or if you intend to visit for more than 90 days.
By this time, anyone with normal patience will have given up. The $14 is nonreturnable, $10 of it having gone to the Visit America ad campaign. If an application is denied, the system won’t promise to give the reason.
Now, it is clear that the United States must protect itself from evildoers. But the agency’s mantra as explained by its chief operating officer, that it sees “security and customer service as mutually exclusive,” seems needlessly cold and forbidding. Visitors to this country can be an asset as well as, on occasion, a security threat. This is no way to distinguish one from the other.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security surely can do better. Why not redesign the threatening website, do away with complex questionnaires, post customs limits for the convenience of the law-abiding and use intelligence and random searches to catch any criminals?
A smile and as friendly “hello” will welcome the honest visitors and restore America’s reputation for generosity and hospitality in the spirit of the poetic line engraved on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”