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The forgotten side of the immigration debate

Recently, I returned home from a three-week stay in Guanajuato, Mexico. I lived with a gracious Mexican family, took Spanish classes and had the chance to immerse myself in Mexican culture. Mexican society was beautiful and vibrant — full of ideas, art and religion. Needless to say, the crude stereotypes of drug cartels and kidnappings were hardly relevant or applicable to my experience, or the experience of anyone I met.

As my trip wound down, I said to my host parents, "Por favor, vengan a visitar a mi familia en los Estados Unidos!" I wanted them to come see my house and meet my family in Pennsylvania. They smiled sadly and told me that would not be likely, because of the difficult hurdles and high costs of obtaining tourist visas.

They are right, of course. While it is not impossible, it is much harder for Mexicans than for, say, Canadians and Europeans to travel to the United States — because Mexico is not part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. This program allows individuals to travel without a visa to the United States for stays of 90 days or less.

Indeed, I also did not need to apply for a visa to travel to Mexico for my visit. But for most countries in the world, and for not-unfounded reasons, potential visitors need to go through various steps in an often arduous process. They must do an interview at a consulate office abroad; they need to file paperwork that shows they have significant ties that keep them at home; and they need to show proof that they are not likely to become a burden on the public system if they travel to the U.S. In essence, if you are not part of the Visa Waiver Program, the burden of proof is on you.

"It's kind of a crap shoot [for Mexicans], it takes a long time, and it's expensive," said Eleanor Sohnen, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Whether or not they are ultimately granted a visa, prospective visitors must still pay the nonrefundable $160 application fee, or about 2,037 pesos. "They are often declared ineligible, so they may be dissuaded from even trying at all," Ms. Sohnen said.

Just how difficult it is for applicants from Mexico (or any other country) to visit the United States is challenging to address, because the State Department does not publish the number of applications it receives for non-immigrant visas, only the number of visas ultimately issued. Thus there is no clear number available to the public of how many applicants were denied.

Back home in the U.S., I now find "comprehensive immigration reform" splashed across the front pages of the major newspapers. They are full of discussions about tighter border controls, crackdowns on employers, paths to citizenship, bipartisan consensus, the DREAM Act, the Latino vote and changing demographics. I read all of it closely to try and understand exactly if and how my host family would be affected by these proposed changes.

It seems to me that the conversation is leaving out those individuals from Mexico who are not looking to come to the United States to work, to study or to live. To the extent that they are included in the national discussion, it's merely to point out symptoms of a problem we need to address with those who overstay their visas. With all the talk of enhanced security on the borders, I can't help but remember how easily I was able to cross their border to explore and to learn. I remember how American music frequently blasts on their radios and how my host mom's favorite television shows were "Bones" and "NCIS" (translated into Spanish). American culture is alive and present in Mexico, but the vast majority of Mexicans that could theoretically visit America will likely never have that chance.

I would think that with our country's economic woes, there must be something we can do to address our fundamental immigration problems while still encouraging tourism from Mexican citizens. The system as it stands now discourages it.

To be sure, many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country entered legally and then overstayed their visas. I recognize this is an enormous and expensive problem. But I find it hard to believe that the only way we can sufficiently limit the number of undocumented workers in the United States is by making it extremely hard for most Mexicans to visit. We certainly have the minds and ingenuity to create a system that ensures those who travel on tourist visas return to their host country, and that eases the process of applying for and obtaining tourist visas.

I am not suggesting Mexico be added now to the Visa Waiver Program but that we do look more closely at the hurdles to travel that many well-intentioned Mexicans face. Include them in the national immigration reform discussion. The increased tourism would economically benefit our country, as would affording others the same freedoms to travel that we so often take for granted.

I'd like to one day welcome into my home my host parents — two hard-working individuals who have no desire to move to America.

—Rachel M. Cohen

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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