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BPO Journal

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

US exports of education and tourism take a beating

I have a bone to pick with Uncle Sam.

Yesterday marked the end of my week-long vacation in London. Soon after my flight pulled into Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, I proceeded towards the perfunctory customs and immigration check as a prelude to boarding the flight to my final destination. Here, I was greeted by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Department's pledge to travellers to the United States. It said:
"- We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States.
- We pledge to treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect.
- We pledge to explain the CBP process to you.
- We pledge to have a supervisor listen to your comments.
- We pledge to accept and respond to your comments in written, verbal, or electronic form.
- We pledge to provide reasonable assistance due to delay or disability."

The CBP did not adhere to any one of its commitments. No tourist in the serpentine queue leading to the CBP officers looked comfortable and at ease. There was palpable tension in the interactions between the officers and the visitors. Further, while collecting biometric information including fingerprints and digital photographs, no effort was made to assuage visitors' concerns. As one of the officers rudely brushed aside my concern about missing my connecting flight, a visitor from the UK, who stood directly behind me, remarked, "Fortress America treats us like common criminals, isn’t it? Actually, worse. For we're guilty until proven innocent."

I am not against the extant security practices, policies and procedures. However, my experience at Bush Intercontinental revealed to me a slip between the institutionalization of such policies and their execution, which can and is shifting focus from the isolation of terrorism to the isolation of America. According to the Commerce Department estimates, visitors from foreign nations accounted for about $93.5 billion in spending and economic activity in the United States in 2004. However, that is fast changing. Between 2000 and 2003, the United States' worldwide share of travelers from Britain declined by 15 percent, from Germany 18 percent, from Japan 15 percent and from Brazil 28 percent, according to data from the Travel Industry Association of America. A November poll by Seattle-based market research firm GMI Inc. of 8,000 consumers from eight industrialized nations revealed that 55 percent of respondents had an increasingly negative perception of that United States. Brad Foss, in this article, “U.S.: an unfriendly fortress?” states that the image problem aside, the U.S. tourism industry is already losing global market share as borders in many parts of the world have become easier and cheaper to cross, and as countries from Spain to Singapore outspend the United States in tourism marketing and advertising.

The commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks also noted evidence of disruption of travel to the United States. Visa applications in 2003 were down 32 percent compared with 2001. It recommended that the nation's border screening system become more efficient and friendly. In the midst of gripping paranoia, are we fast turning into a nation that cannot differentiate its tourist customers from terrorists and immigrants from invaders? We see them everyday. In this article, “Don’t Slam the Door: How immigrants keep this country rolling”, Tamar Jacoby states that immigrants are more than: 20% of all medical doctors, 25% of all PhDs, 30% of patent holders, and 82% of farmhands. Without immigrants, the retail prices of meat, fresh fruits and vegetables would rise some 15 percent; in restaurants, which are large employers of immigrants, the price increases could be twice that.

The U.S. remains dependent on foreign immigration for a large chunk of its science and engineering prowess. According to NASA administrator Dan Goldin, with American students opting out of key math, engineering, and science fields, over the next decade, America will need 50 percent more people with science degrees. Foreign-born-scientists and engineers account for a third of the technical work force in Silicon Valley. Moreover, a quarter of the high-tech companies started there in the 1990s is run by Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs. Immigrants are founders of institutions such as Intel, Google, Carnegie Foundation, Liz Claiborne and Oscar Mayer.

In this review of Richard Florida’s current book, The Flight of the Creative Class: the New Global Competition for Talent, the author states that in the past, a large chunk of the highly skilled immigrant population never returned to their native land, and thus contributed immeasurably to the American economy. However, the isolationist policies pursued by the country and its increasingly unfriendly image are keeping a growing number of talented immigrants out of the country. They have resulted in a serious drop in the number of visas granted to foreigners looking to work and study in the U.S. The book states that the world’s top minds are now increasingly finding international locales more conducive to their work and research. Japan produces cutting-edge consumer electronics. Hollywood finds competition for movie business from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. London, Milan, and Paris compete with New York as the fashion mecca. The drop in student visas to the US was accompanied by a record increase in visas to the United Kingdom and Australia. Florida states that the country faces a major dilemma. Manufacturing jobs have dried up, courtesy of automation and offshoring. Natural resources are under demand by many more countries, primarily India and China, and the U.S. faces significant competition on the scientific front.

Government and business leaders are yet to recognize the “creative class” as a potent force in economic development. In the interim, I aim to request the CBP to either remove their pledge from the airport where it is so blatantly violated or train their personnel better so that I feel welcome in the country where I live, pay taxes and call home. And where I am innocent until proven guilty.

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